BU Today

Campus Life

Bottled vs. Tap: Which Tastes Better?

CAS taste test ends in stalemate

22
11-3433-WATERDAY-014_h.jpg

Chelsea Kantor (CAS’12) prepares to vote in the CAS geography and environment department bottled versus tap water taste test. (Below) Dixie cups of tap and bottled water are readied for a blind taste test. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

It all started as an innocent tiff around the water cooler.

Last semester, Hila Landesman posted a sign on the Vermont Pure Natural Spring Water container in the College of Arts & Sciences geography and environment department’s student lounge, saying, “This is bottled water too.” Someone surreptitiously tore it down. But the sign reemerged this semester, this time penned by someone else. A rebuttal was then taped to the cooler noting that heavy metals found in tap water make it unsafe to drink.

The silent water war was getting to Landesman (CAS’12).

“We are the environmental department, yet we have this big container of bottled water sitting there,” she says. The plastic bottles are made from petroleum, shipped long distances, and if not recycled, take years to break down in a landfill—all reasons she thinks her department should boycott them. “There’s a water fountain around the corner from the student lounge. It’s literally seven steps away.”

Landesman shared her concerns with Nathan Phillips, a CAS associate professor of geography and environment, and they decided to end the back-and-forth with a bottled water versus tap water taste test on March 22 in honor of World Water Day.

Weeks before the event, Landesman collected samples of tap water (taken from the George Sherman Union, the FitRec Center, and water fountains in CAS) and bottled water (Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, Poland Spring, Smartwater, and Vermont Pure) and asked the earth sciences department to identify levels of various minerals—such as calcium, magnesium, copper, and lead—found in each. Samples were not tested for microorganisms, pharmaceuticals, or disinfectants. WATERDAY

On test day, more than a dozen students crowded into the department’s student lounge, where an ocean of Dixie cups were spread across two tables—one holding samples of tap water, the other Vermont Pure bottled water. Each student took a whiff of coffee grounds (to clear the palate) before drinking. They then cast ballots for which they preferred and which tasted like tap water.

Valerie Pasquarella (GRS’13) couldn’t tell which sample was tap water. She prefers the “slightly metallic” flavor of Boston’s water and buys bottled water “only if I need a new bottle to bring tap water in,” she says.

Ryan Sullivan (CAS’12) also found the two samples similar in taste. “They both kind of tasted like water,” says Sullivan, who drinks filtered water at the dorms. “Maybe my palate’s not as sophisticated.”

Turns out Sullivan isn’t alone. Of 67 taste-testers, only a third identified the tap water sample correctly, according to Phillips, who is also the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Another third thought it was bottled water, and the remaining participants couldn’t tell the difference.

The water tests revealed that both samples were safe to drink by Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration standards. Vermont Pure contained higher levels of magnesium and calcium, and the tap water had higher levels of phosphorus, lead, and copper. (Magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium are not regulated by either agency. While not harmful, they do affect taste.)

The water samples taken by Landesman before spring break revealed a similar trend, with none registering at or above EPA and FDA guidelines. Among all the bottled samples, Evian contained the highest mineral levels, with magnesium measuring nearly three times that of tap water.

Cutler Cleveland, a CAS professor of geography and environment, cohosted the event with Phillips, and he pushes for more people to drink tap water. Bottled water companies, Cleveland says, launched a “campaign of misinformation and propaganda saying tap water is not safe when in the majority of cases it is.”

Yet Phillips says that some faculty members remain unconvinced, hence the presence of the water cooler.

But what about that water cooler? Both sides still have their points of view pasted to the wall behind it, alongside a petition with dozens of student signatures advocating its removal.

“I have a feeling its days are numbered,” Cleveland says.WATERDAY

The Environmental Student Organization, which also advocates for tap water, held a similar taste test at the GSU Link the same day. You can see posted highlights of those water tests on the group’s blog.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

22 Comments

22 Comments on Bottled vs. Tap: Which Tastes Better?

  • Valerie on 03.24.2011 at 8:09 am

    We should realize that there a lot more to the debate on bottled water than simply its physical impact on the environment. Every time we drink bottled water, we are allowing large corporations to take control of access to a basic human right. If we continue to live this way, we are going to see the development of a ‘haves vs. have nots’ situation, which is already present in many developing countries where water privatization has taken over. We need to turn toward investing in infrastructure in order to insure the high quality of tap water.
    For more on this issue, there are a lot of great documentaries out there, ‘Flow’ and ‘Tapped’ among them. Happy World Water Day!

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 9:32 am

    I never drink bottled water unless I’m absolutely parched and don’t have my refillable with me. That said, why doesn’t the department consider a water filter? The School of Public Health and School of Medicine have no water jugs and instead have water filtration systems – these are great since people can easily refill their own bottles, too! It seems to me that this way, we are still using local water resources but are making the bottled water people happy by filtering.

  • Stephanie Robb on 03.24.2011 at 9:40 am

    RI Tap Water

    I wish the same could be said for the tap water in Rhode Island. Would anybody be interested in conducting the same tests in Newport?

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 9:41 am

    water coolers recycle their plastic bottles so what’s the big deal?

  • Meredith Withelder on 03.24.2011 at 9:44 am

    More about the "tap that" campaign

    If you are interested in learning more about the background of this story and/or getting involved in the Environmental Student Organization’s campaign please read on…

    Two years ago, ESO started a campaign against bottled water on campus. We collectively recognized the negative social and environmental impacts of bottled water and aimed to educate BU’s student body about those issues. Last year we designed our own Klean Kanteen water bottles that we gave out as prizes with a trivia game during Earth Day. Our blog has an anti-water bottle purchasing pledge that you can sign and you can also join our mailing list. The signs that were posted by “someone else” in the lounge were posted by us and written by me. We have also posted a petition to get rid of the water cooler in CAS 442.

    We have been working on this campaign for two years and we will continue to do so with the ultimate goal of reducing and potentially banning the sale of plastic water bottles from Pepsi on our campus. If you want to learn more please come to our meetings on Wednesday evenings.

    Note: The link from this article to our blog leads to the water quality chemical analysis performed by the Earth Sciences Department. I produced the final table that you see there. The message is that BOTTLED IS NO BETTER THAN TAP. THEY ARE BOTH SAFE AND HEALTHY TO DRINK. WHY POLLUTE WHEN YOU CAN GET GOOD WATER FOR FREE AND AT NO COST TO THE ENVIRONMENT?

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 10:00 am

    Bottled vs Tap

    I thought this was about beer.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 10:13 am

    Water Cooler Debate

    The water cooler companies come pick up the empty jugs and reuse them once they’ve been refilled. So I don’t really see what the problem is.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 10:38 am

    Bottled Water harms Earth too much...

    Like the article said, the amount of gasoline spent to make bottled water is so harmful to the earth (not to mention the amount of people who don’t recycle). To give you an idea, each bottle of water can be filled 25% with gasoline, because that’s approximately the amount of gas each bottle of water takes to make. I may not have done this research, but my high school had a conference on water just one year ago and many of the topics included the harms of bottled water. The facts were so alarming that I promised myself I wouldn’t drink bottled water anymore. Also, many people don’t realize that FDA Rules for Bottled Water Are Generally Less Strict than Tap Water Rules. Tap water is safe, and it’s not an excuse that you think tap water is unsafe because bottled water is not regulated as well, and therefore is less safe.

    Although you may think you’re receiving more and/or better vitamins from bottled water, you get all those nutrients from the food you eat already, and it’s not worth the harm it does to the earth; especially if you have one personal, re-useable water bottle that you can easily fill up at every corner you turn.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 10:54 am

    Re: Post 03/24/2011 09:41 am

    Those water cooler jugs, even if they are faithfully recycled, still have to be transported on trucks, which gives them a carbon footprint. Tap water does not have that problem. Also, each time the jugs are used, there is a plastic cap that needs to be disposed of. I have no doubt a lot of those caps are being tossed in the trash instead of a recycling bin.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 11:16 am

    We find everyday that there are new artificial chemicals around us everyday that cause a host of conditions (such as MPTP in the vegetables that we eat). If some research could be done to either show what is really in our tap water (not just checking for the effects of heavy metal ions which are the least of my worries) or to show that there truly is no major effect of daily exposure to trace amounts of potentially dangerous chemicals, then I and I’m sure many others would be convinced to drink tap water instead of bottled water. Until that day I will continue to buy organic prodyce, I will avoid microwaving plastic containers, and I will certainly be watchful of my tap water intake.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 11:30 am

    I find it absurd that people will exorbitant amounts of money for bottled water while there is a shortage of drinking water globally.

    Almost none of the profits made by these bottling companies are used to pay for the resource they exploit or provide for its conservation.

    An interesting video:
    http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/

    Drink tap, it’s one of the best ways to sustain our earth for future generations.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 11:35 am

    Every time I see this debate occurring I want to SCREAM! The same thing happened last year when a group of students was trying to petition the school to eliminate the sale of bottled water. THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE THAT CANNOT DRINK TAP WATER FOR MEDICAL REASONS!!! Ever since I was a child, my physician has required me to drink not spring water, but PURIFIED/DISTILLED water that eliminates all trace metals, biologics, and large-form bacteria that is in the water system that the FDA DOES NOT REGULATE! People with certain medical conditions, if they are on medications that lower immune system response, and even cancer patients are required to drink PURIFIED water as noted by their physicians. Its not about taste for these individuals, its about safety. Even people with asthma that take high-steroidal inhalers shouldn’t drink tap water. Think about all the people that you know that fit these categories and the elimination of bottled water could have a harmful effect on these individuals!!!

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 11:42 am

    The Voice of the Students

    This is a great example of students and faculty joining forces to positively change campus behaviors and attitudes. The debate over bottled water is a not a trivial one, and it’s articles like this that help to highlight how proactive students really can be on campus and how there are a number of faculty members just as passionate and supportive. Nice shout out to the Environmental Student Organization as well! Great job to everyone involved!

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 12:32 pm

    RE: Every time I see this debate...

    It sounds like you have a very specific case, though I’ve never known any physicians who recommend avoiding tap water to cancer patients.

    If the contaminants you reference in tap water are so harmful to weaker immune system there is even more reason to push for more stringent and frequently monitored standards of public water supply by the FDA and EPA.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 1:03 pm

    @I find it absurd that people

    To those of you whose physicians recommend you drink purified water: do you pasteurize your vegetables, too? Distill your potatoes down to something without the biologics, metals etc we water our plants with? What sort of crazy doctor thinks a kid should drink distilled water? Won’t that stuff rob you of electrolyte?

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 1:16 pm

    RE: Everytime I see this debate...

    Tap water can also be filtered and doesn’t waste nearly as much plastic as individual water bottles. If you have to drink “purified/distilled” water, then drink it. It still doesn’t mean that you have to buy small bottles of water. That would just mean that you’re too lazy to buy a Brita filter. I don’t know which medical conditions call for this and I can’t say that I know “A LOT OF PEOPLE” faced with this predicament; that seems like quite an exaggeration. Also, the FDA guidelines are used for bottled water, not tap water. The EPA regulates tap water and their regulations are much more stringent. Just an FYI. I invite you to post an article from a legitimate source to prove me wrong about these “medical conditions”. It has also been shown that PET plastic bottles leach antimony the longer they are exposed to high temperatures. see:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17707454 for scientific article. Antimony has been identified as an endocrine disruptor. If that’s not unhealthy, I don’t know what it.

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 3:19 pm

    To the “Every time I see this debate” poster. Distilled water used for medical purposes, irons, medical equipment that requires it, is a different debate than the majority of non-reusable plastic bottles that most people drink. That water is often from a TAP source anyway marked up thousands of time to turn a profit for companies that exploit communities, destroy their water systems and in some places force people off their land because they can no longer sustain life there. I myself must occasionally buy distilled water but I don’t have to use it for drinking purposes so I would never buy bottled water for drinking and the majority of people also do not need it for drinking and can drink tap water without any harm as tap water and bottle water are equally safe.

    http://www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/qbw.asp

  • Anonymous on 03.24.2011 at 3:19 pm

    I was incredibly disappointed when I discovered this way not about beer. Way to tease my inbox BU today.

  • Anonymous on 03.27.2011 at 4:44 pm

    Results, results, results!

    Since both tap water and bottled water were tested for mineral contents, what are the values for lead and copper? How does filtered tap water affect the lead and copper concentration in water? Please provide us with more information.

  • yolo on 05.07.2013 at 8:08 am

    i like tap

  • Rob on 02.11.2014 at 11:57 am

    I am currently a senior attending Syracuse University, which has been known to have some of the highest quality tap water in the entire country. Kids all around campus are starting to make the change from bottled water to tap, and it is truly a great thing to see. I have been interning with the Sustainability Division around campus, and just recently we conducted a series of water tastes tests around various buildings on campus. The results were similar to those seen out of the tests done at Boston University, with many students not being able to taste the difference between the bottled and tap water we have on campus. Why pay $1.75 for a mediocre bottle of Aquafina when you can just head to any water bottle refill station on campus? After the students took our water taste test, we gave them each an SU sustainability refillable water bottle to take along. Make the change!!!

  • Jeremy on 05.19.2014 at 1:38 pm

    I believe bottled water is actually GOOD for the environment. If we continue to use enough plastics, we could eventually melt the used bottles down and build a giant plastic spaceship, furthering the development of NASA. No fuel for the awesome rocket? Take it from the earth, dingus. We fly the rocket ALL THE WAY TO SATURN, take the space gasoline back to earth, and use it to super boost our Earth cars. Checkmate, Brigham Young University.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)