Quality Control of Bottled and Vended Water in California: A Review and Comparison to Tap Water

Article excerpt

Consumption of bottled and vended water in the U.S. is increasing annually by 12% to 15% and is highest in California; residents consume over 36% of the bottled water sold, resulting in an annual consumption of 22 gallons per capita (1). A comparison of the major sources of drinking water in the U.S. and California is presented in Table 1. Thirty-three percent of Californians use bottled water as a primary source of drinking water (4). Despite increasingly stringent regulations to ensure high quality tap water, consumers are willing to pay on the average 700 times more for alternative sources. Californians have placed a higher value on bottled water primarily for reasons of taste and perceived health concerns (4). As consumption of bottled water increases, so does concern over whether this water is an adequate source for mass consumption.

This research was conducted to compare the current regulations and compliance for quality control of bottled and vended water in California with that of the tap water industry. The tap water industry, as referred to herein, consists of public water systems that have at least 15 service connections or regularly serve at least 25 individuals. Non-carbonated, non-mineral water, comprising 90% of the bottled and vended water market, was the focus.


Data were obtained through interviews with federal, state, and local regulators and industry representatives; published studies; California and federal statutes and regulations; and compliance records. Both site visits and telephone interviews were used. Changing regulations and market forces result in continual changes in the bottled water industry. Although the literature review included earlier studies, only data published after 1985 were considered representative of current conditions. There is considerable literature published on the bottled water industry, but the vast majority addresses non-regulatory, non-technical aspects (e.g., consumer behavior and marketing aspects). No published reviews of vended water were found.


The first large scale assessments of bottled water quality conducted in the early 1970s revealed serious problems with quality control and catalyzed significant changes in federal and state regulations (5,6). Since the early 1970's numerous independent researchers, consumer advocacy groups, and government agencies have assessed various aspects of the industry. Generalization of results must be made with caution because such assessments are often limited in scope (e.g., limited number of samples taken) and cannot be extrapolated over time. However, on occasion these analyses have identified gaps in existing regulations or problems in the industry. A review of the more recent studies highlights two potential public health concerns: inconsistent water quality due to inadequate process control at bottling facilities and deterioration of water quality after storage as described below.

Periodic analyses of the chemical composition of bottled water indicated that a majority of bottled water met applicable standards (7,8,9,10). However, in some samples, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including toluene and benzene were identified. This contamination, thought to be introduced during processing, was attributed to inadequate process control. The equipment and handling intensive processing of bottled water provides many opportunities for the introduction of contaminants. For instance, operation and maintenance of equipment (e.g., ozonators, pumps, deionizers, bottle fillers) requires the use of lubricants and cleaning solvents which if not adequately controlled will contact the water product. The presence of VOCs indicates the need for better quality control at the bottling plants, and continuous monitoring and surveillance by the oversight agency. Although current regulations establish requirements for monitoring and recording of process control activities, the underlying causes for poor process control are untrained employees and poor management policies which are, in general, unaffected by regulations. …