What’s in That Expensive Bottled Water, Anyway?

The Toledo water crisis prompts some to wonder

Headshot of Robert Klara

There’s nothing like a toxic algae bloom like the one in Toledo to spur sales of bottled water. When Ohio state officials declared a state of emergency on Saturday, ordering everyone in the city not to get near their taps, they inadvertently caused a deluge of demand for bottled water. Some residents drove into Michigan in search of it, and attorney general Mike DeWine’s office just announced a crackdown on price gougers in the wake of complaints that some retailers had tripled the price of bottled water.

All of which raises a question: Whether or not you live in Toledo, just how pure is that pristine bottled water in the shopping cart?

Turns out, the answer varies depending on the brand, and on a confusing lexicon of water terms ("artesian" isn't the same as "spring," for instance.) But the bottom line is this: Close to half of the bottled water sold in the United States is ordinary filtered tap water. A few years ago, the National Resources Defense Council completed a four-year-long study of over 100 brands of bottled water, and found a few disturbing things—including the case of “pure, glacier water” having been pumped from a well near a hazardous waste site.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, bottled water brands are fond of using images of snowcapped mountains and piney forests on their labels, even when the water in the bottle may really be from a tap in Pittsburgh. Or, as one investigator put it, "the same stuff that fills your toilet bowl." And since there’s no requirement for them to put the water’s source on the label, many brands simply don’t.

So what are the good people of Toledo—and everywhere—really drinking when they twist off those plastic caps? Below are a few of the leading brands of bottled water, and where their respective H20 actually comes from.

Poland Spring – The jingle in TV spots for this brand used to boast that the water was “coming to you straight from Maine.” And it is. Just not all of it from Poland Spring. A 2002 class-action suit alleged that the brand’s namesake spring had run dry as far back as 1967. Owner Nestle settled. These days, Poland Spring water actually comes from several springs—but they’re all, apparently, still in Maine.

Dasani – This is among the best selling water brands in the U.S. But despite the crystal-blue bottle and the exotic name, Dasani (which is owned by Coca-Cola) is actually made “with the local water supply,” to quote the website, and then filtered through reverse osmosis (which means it’s basically run through a membrane that gets the nasty stuff out.)

Fiji – The surprise here is that Fiji water actually comes from Fiji, specifically the Yaqara Valley of the island of Viti Levu. This exotic water’s smooth taste doesn’t come from a filter, but rather the trace amounts of Silica and bicarbonate that come from the island’s volcanic rock. Whether or not that justifies the price is up to you.

Évian – The rather simple bottle with the blue cap belies the comparatively exotic source of this best-selling water, which is drawn from the Cachat Spring in the French village of Évian-les-Bains. That this mass-market water that sells by the case at Walmart is actually melted alpine snow is, you gotta admit, pretty cool.

Aquafina – Owner PepsiCo made headlines in 2007 when it admitted that this rather refined-sounding brand is actually just ordinary tap water. Of course, it’s treated through a variety of means, including ultraviolet disinfection and something called ozonation. But yeah, it’s tap water—specifically from municipal water sources in Denver, Sacramento and Las Vegas (source of all things pure, of course.)

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.