Bacteria in Bottled Water: Thing of the Past?

Posted by Matthew Lisle on

I started sipping on the Aquafina bottle of water I bought from CVS, and within 10 minutes I felt nauseous. Was it the bottled water? Eh, probably not. But, it made me think: is bottled water always the safest bet?

Turns out, back in the 1999, the Natural Resources Defense Council asked the same question, and the answer they got was disturbing. Out of 1,000 samples total from 103 different brands of bottled water, about one third were contaminated with microbes or chemicals! A one-third chance -- kind of like the game show where you have three doors to choose from, except this time, if you’re the lucky winner, you get E. coli.

The bottled water industry was slow to react. Regulation in the bottled water industry is governed by the FDA (whereas tap water is done by the EPA). Although the FDA did have standards during this time, bottled water companies didn’t have to say where they were getting their water from, what was in it, or how they were treating it. A quote from the FDA site in 2002 even said that they saw inspection of water bottling facilities as low priority. This has since changed -- in 2013, FDA promised stricter regulations, and if they found E. coli in a bottle of water, that company would get in big trouble.

But let’s take a look at the FDA regulation in more detail. You can go here to read it. Scroll down and you’ll see that 9.2 coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water are allowed. Let’s come back to that bottle of Aquafina I mentioned earlier so I can unpack what this regulation means. In my 20 oz bottle of Aquafina, the FDA would allow for over 54 coliform bacteria. What are coliform bacteria? It’s a group of bacteria that includes E. coli.

The FDA restricts E. coli count to zero, so what they are saying is that there can be 54 non-diarrhea-causing bacteria in my bottle of water. Sounds fine, right? Maybe. Coliform bacteria, while not all harmful, usually are taken as a general indicator of microbiological activity. In other words, they could indicate the presence of other harmful microbes, which is the reason why the EPA regulates to zero coliform bacteria in tap water.

I have good news, though! The International Bottled Water Association (IWBA) does set their standard to 0 coliform bacteria. Members of IWBA are required to meet this standard. Catch is: not all bottled water companies are members. You guessed it, Aquafina isn’t one of them.

If it seems like I have been insinuating that Aquafina water is contaminated, let me put that idea to bed. I looked on the website, and they show their 7-step purification process along with a comprehensive test report proving their water is safe. I don’t give them a complete pass because they input the wrong data into their Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) metric. But hey, should we really expect a multinational bottled water company to know the difference between TDS and turbidity?

Yes, yes we should.

Next time I get thirsty and am looking at a shelf full of different brands of bottled water, I’ll have done my research. Read more tips about avoiding lead in water here.

Will you?

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