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Bottled water is everywhere these days. But is it really worth the extra expense?

Once upon a time, most of us could walk across a parking lot or push a stroller down the street without a bottle of water in our hands. It doesn't seem that way anymore.

Today, Americans consume the most bottled water of any country -- upwards of 25 billion liters a year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, and most of it on the go.

"Americans are looking for a healthful way to quench their thirst, and bottled water is convenient, and compared to high-sugar, high-calorie choices, it's a good choice," says Stephen Kay, vice president of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA).

While our thirst for bottled water seems insatiable, one question can't be ignored: Is it really any better for us than ordinary tap water?

According to the IBWA, some 71% of bottled waters users cite quality as the reason for buying. Quite simply, they say it's better than what's coming out of their tap. But water safety experts say that, except in isolated situations, this simply isn't true.

"If you repeatedly test over 100 brands of bottled water, about a third will have a problem, but if you tested tap water that often, you will find something similar," says Erik Olson, director of advocacy for the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council, which in 2003 issued a comprehensive report on the safety of bottled water.

Olson adds that with the exception of a few isolated pockets of truly bad drinking water, most municipal systems and most bottled water sources are fairly equal in terms of contaminants and other health and safety issues.

Need more proof of equality? Consider this: While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards over drinking water, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over bottled water, and since the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, nearly every regulation put forth by one agency has been echoed by the other.

For its part, the IBWA says it's not trying to lead consumers to think that bottled water is healthier -- just a more convenient choice, says Kay.

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