The slimy secret water companies don’t want you to know: Bacteria, arsenic, and carcinogens all found in bottled water

We all know how important it is to drink water. And we’ve all heard the horror stories of how tap water can be contaminated with everything from drugs to toxic chemicals.

Bottled water was supposed to be a solution to our water woes. Portable and pure. Just the thing to keep us hydrated and healthy.

Except it’s not.

A Natural Resources Defense Council review of 103 bottled water brands found that 25 percent had chemical contaminants at levels above state standards.1

And not just chlorine—which is bad enough. The researchers actually found fecal bacteria and arsenic in bottled water. And three chemicals that are suspected carcinogens.

Why? Well, when an independent research group asked the manufacturers of 173 different bottled water brands where their water came from and if it was purified, half of all companies refused to answer.

Meaning that the fancy bottled water you’re paying a premium for may very well be plain tap water.

So what should you drink instead? Probably not well water, which may be spiked with high levels of arsenic (see sidebar).

Filtered tap water is a good choice. Or buy bottled mineral water. I’ll tell you why I think it’s truly the “fluid of life” in a moment.

But first, let’s look at why our bodies need water. (Hint: It’s not only for the reason you think.)

And why we don’t need bottled water.

Why you should drink water that has minerals and electrolytes

Water is more than just a source of fluid for every cell in our bodies. It’s also a source of electrolytes and minerals. And these compounds are just as important for our health as the water itself.

In fact, the electrolyte content of our blood is about half the amount of today’s seawater. Natural scientists think our blood simply reflects the salinity of seawater when life first emerged onto the land from the sea.

In the hundreds of millions of years since then, water flowing from the land has added salts and minerals into the oceans. That’s slowly raised the electrolyte and mineral content of seawater to today’s levels.

Of course, you can’t drink seawater, but you can drink natural sources of water that flow on land. Springs, creeks, and rivers are naturally full of electrolytes and minerals. They are not dead, sterile, chemically treated water sources like many people drink today.

Natural mineral springs have been known since ancient times to have health benefits—whether you drink the water or soak in it.

More recent scientific analysis has found that mineral waters also contain trace amounts of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, selenium, sulfur, and other minerals.

One of the most important of these minerals is magnesium. There is growing understanding that most Americans are not getting enough magnesium from their diets and drinking water. In fact, it’s probably the most ignored mineral deficiency today.

Magnesium is involved in more than 300 different metabolic processes in our bodies. And it’s critical for the proper metabolism of calcium. And yet, a variety of studies show that up to 80 percent of Americans fail to even get the woefully low magnesium RDA of 360 mg for women and 420 mg for men.

But you can help fix that problem by simply changing what you drink. Filtered tap water has more magnesium—and other minerals—than purified, bottled water. And, of course, mineral waters are generally the best source of all.

You really don’t know what’s in your bottled water

Some bottled waters advertise that they come from natural springs—just like mineral waters. Well, that may or may not be true.

In 2011, The Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an independent research organization—evaluated 173 different bottled water brands.2 Manufacturers were asked three simple questions:

  • Where does your water come from?
  • Is it purified? How?
  • Have tests found any contaminants?

The results were disheartening, to say the least. Eighteen percent of all of the water manufacturers wouldn’t say where their water came from. And 32 percent wouldn’t reveal anything about purity.

Most shocking of all—nine of the top 10-selling bottled water companies flat out refused to answer at least one of these questions.

We’re talking about Aquafina (PepsiCo), Dasani (Coca-Cola), Crystal Geyser, and six Nestle brands.

An Aquafina representative even went so far as to tell EWG that its water-quality information was “proprietary” and “not for the public.”

It seems most companies that enjoy huge profits from selling water do not want their customers to know that their products may only be municipal tap water.

In California, state law requires that companies provide water-quality reports on the label or upon request. But EWG points out that brands that fail to provide such information include some of the more expensive and better-sounding waters, like Fiji Natural Artesian Water and Green Planet Pure Handcrafted Water.

So while states like California, Massachusetts, and New Mexico have passed requirements to supplement federal laws about bottled water transparency, secrecy still remains the order of the day.

Especially for grocery store brands. Publix, Harris Teeter, and Kroger didn’t disclose the sources of their bottled waters. And Trader Joe’s, Giant (Acadia Natural Spring Water), CVS (Gold Emblem Natural Spring), and Target (Market Pantry Purified Water and Archer Farms Natural Spring Water) wouldn’t reveal how—or even if—their water is purified.

EWG notes that for all we know, these companies may be bottling municipal water straight from the tap, pumping it from a well to a truck to a bottle, or not purifying it at all.

But the news is not all bad…

The situation is actually improving for some waters. EWG reports that Acqua Panna, Mountain Valley, and Nestle Pure Life now provide more information about their sources. And San Pellegrino and Vasa have added water-quality information to their labels.

Look past the hype when it comes to water

With the lack of transparency generally floating around, EWG recommends drinking filtered tap water. There are a variety of filters that you can put directly on your faucet or in your refrigerator. You will save money, have purer water, and avoid contributing to the global glut of plastic bottles.

But when all you want to do is quench your thirst, it’s hard to overlook the rows and rows of bottled water cluttering up grocery store shelves.

Coke and Pepsi already “own” the majority of shelf space in store beverage aisles, supported by slotting fees, advertising, and other marketing ploys. When consumers showed a willingness to pay nearly 2,000 times more for a bottle of water than for their tap water at home, these big beverage makers were only too quick to move over a few of their toxic sugar and sugar-substitute sodas to make room for their new bottled waters.

(Of course, all of these beverages and sodas are mostly water anyway, so maybe it didn’t seem like a big switch. That’s why buying a drink at a fast-food joint is a huge source of profits compared to actual food, which has to be prepared with real ingredients.)

With bottled water taking up so much retail real estate, you literally have to look high and low for mineral and spring waters—in the less desirable and accessible shelf space. But I think it’s worth it.

In fact, for a real healthy treat, I recommend searching a little further and paying a little more for a European mineral water, bottled at the source. European Union law requires that these waters have all contents, purity, and sources listed on the label. The water must also be medically and scientifically certified.

Well-known brands like Evian, Perrier, Volvic, and San Pellegrino all pass muster. Or if you really want to float your boat, check out the list of the hundreds of mineral waters that are officially approved by the European Union.3

Five deadly toxins in bottled water

The Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council report that some bottled water may have the following toxins.

Fecal bacteria. May cause vomiting, diarrhea, or serious illness in older people, children, or people with immunity issues.

Nitrates. Usually caused by fertilizer runoff into the water system. A potential carcinogen that can also interfere with babies’ ability to get enough oxygen.

Trihalomethanes (chloroform). Linked to cancer of the bladder, colon, and pancreas.

Haloacetic acids. This disinfection byproduct is a likely carcinogen.

Phthalates. Associated with plastic bottles. A possible carcinogen that may also disrupt the endocrine system.

Is well water safer than tap water?

The EPA limits arsenic in tap water to 10 parts per billion. But levels of this poison may be up to 100 times higher in well water in some areas of the country—particularly northern New England, the upper Midwest, and the West.

Even so, an arsenic level of 1,000 parts per billion is nothing to get upset about. Arsenic has actually been approved in high dilution as a safe homeopathic remedy in the U.S. since 1937 with no ill effects. So I don’t see it as a reason to forgo the benefits of well water and expose yourself to the other hazards of tap water. To wit…

Fluoride has been added to municipal tap water longer than most of us have been alive. Supposedly, our water is fluoridated in order to reduce cavities. But the American Dental Association cites better dental hygiene as the reason why cavities have declined—not fluoridation.

Research shows that fluoride is a powerful poison and cardiac toxin. It’s also a cellular toxin and neurotoxin and has been linked to organ damage.

Chlorine added to municipal water supplies to kill bacteria has adverse effects inside and outside the body—irritating the eyes, lungs, and respiratory tract.


1Natural Resources Defense Council.

2 Environmental Working Group 2011 Bottled Water Scorecard.

3 European Union. List of Natural Mineral Waters Recognized by Member States.