The EU Drinking Water Directive requires that “water is free from any micro-organisms and parasites and from any substances which…constitute a potential danger to human health”, and this ensures that UK tap and bottled water is of a good standard which is suitable for human consumption; indeed, drinking water in the UK has extremely high levels of quality and is some of the best in the world.
However, not many people realise that there are differences between tap water and bottled water, in terms treatment and quality standards.
There are four types of water produced for drinking, and each has bespoke rules and requirements on exploitation, sale and how they are labelled.
- Bottled “mineral” water must come from a recognized underground water source. The waters chemical and mineral composition must be stable over time and its original purity must be preserved. They can only be subject to very limited treatments. It is a requirement to label natural mineral water with a statement of analytical composition indicating the characteristic constituents of the water.
- “Spring” water must also be bottled at source, but it can be treated or filtered before being bottled. Any water labelled ‘spring water’ must come from an underground source and meet certain exploitation and labelling requirements. Spring water doesn’t need to be from an officially recognised source, nor must its composition be stable over time. There is no requirement for spring waters to display a statement of analytical composition indicating the characteristic constituents of the water.
- Bottled drinking water can come from any water source and has fewer labelling restrictions than the “Spring” or “mineral” categories.
- Tap water is sourced from springs, rivers, and aquifers and treated to exacting standards before being put into the pipe network to feed every home and business. Tap water must meet very strict standards that ensure it is safe to drink and the quality is acceptable to consumers.
Tap water receives rigorous inspection before it can be considered safe for human consumption. Under regulation 27 of the Water Supply Regulations, water companies carry out risk assessments on all water supplies, submitting risk assessment reports and reviews to the UK Secretary of State as per Regulation 28. Further regulations require water companies to treat water to minimise the risk of copper and lead contamination from pipes and address the application of substances into the water being supplied.
Thus bottled water can be of inferior quality to tap water. This is especially the case if bottled water is stored in warm conditions for months before it is sold, and it usually contains no disinfecting additives such as chlorine. In addition, bottled water sourced from overseas regions can travel hundreds of miles before it is sold in the UK at varying temperatures. Tap water is arguably the safer option.
The Discover Water website has lots of information, including on tap water quality standards. The latest data (Jan 2017 – Dec 2017) show that water companies met the stringent quality tests for tap water 99.96% of the time.
In summary, there are key quality and criteria differences between bottled water and tap water. Even though bottled water must meet a good standard, tap water exceeds this, receives very regular careful inspection and analysis, and travels less distance to consumers. Essentially, water companies have more scrutiny from the government which means their tap water quality must meet a higher standard. Bottled water rarely has better quality than tap water and in most instances its water quality falls short compared to tap water.
Importantly, tap water is much cheaper than any bottled source, with no single use plastic involved. Two litres of tap water costs about 1/3p compared to 45p to much higher for bottled water.
The Refill scheme is encouraging business that serve the public to refill existing water bottles from the tap upon request. In this way people can remain hydrated while on the go, but also minimise waste. Check out the Refill scheme, and download the app so that you can find free tap water, where you are. Together with many other businesses, water companies have signed up to the Refill Scheme, and beginning to install public drinking water fountains, with Bristol Water and Southern Water leading the way.
Let’s embrace the tap!