Aside from the daily reports of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the most cringe-worthy part of the outbreak is watching case after plastic-wrapped case of bottled water fly off store shelves. According to Business Insider, Costco is experiencing a sales boost regarding “dry items, cleaning supplies, Clorox and bleach, water, paper goods, (and) hand sanitizers.”

Most of these are recommended by the Center for Disease Control for household cleaning and disinfecting, and crucial for containing the outbreak. In fact, here is a list of COVID-19 fighting products pre-approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Knock yourself out.

However, neither the CDC nor the World Health Organization say anything about stocking up on bottled water.

So why can’t Costco keep bottled water on the shelves? I can think of three reasons. 1) People believe bottled water is somehow safer than tap water. 2) People are worried municipal tap water will fail during a pandemic. 3) Monkey see, monkey do.

Let’s just stop and think about this for a second, then decide if it’s worth braving the Costco hoards to stock up.

If you’ve already purchased cases of bottled water, check out how to recycle the plastic shrink wrap in King County.

Bottled water isn’t necessarily safer

According to Tapp Water, municipal tap water in the United States is largely of “high international standard and healthy and safe to drink.” Flint and Newark are among the few exceptions. But even if you are unsure about your local tap water, you can easily find its annual testing results on Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.

Now try searching for test results for your favorite bottled water. Any luck? Probably not. Unlike water utilities, the bottled water industry isn’t required to make its testing results public. And according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “the federal government does not require bottled water to be safer than tap.” Municipal tap water not only undergoes much more rigorous testing; reports on that testing are legally required to be publicly accessible. In other words, we know exactly what’s in our tap water and very little about what’s in bottled water.

After a four-year study of the bottled water industry, the NRDC concluded:

“That there is no assurance that bottled water is cleaner or safer than tap. In fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle – sometimes further treated, sometimes not.


Can COVID-19 travel through water?

Perhaps some people fear Coronavirus can spread through water and are therefore avoiding tap water. First of all, there is nothing from the CDC or WHO that suggests such a thing. Second, even if that were true, why would bottled water be any safer? As established above, it’s less regulated and – at least a quarter of the time – it’s the same water that comes from your tap. Why would wrapping it up in plastic and marking it up 4000% make it any safer?

Current science points to Coronavirus spreading through person-to-person contact. What puts you more at risk for human contact; turning on your kitchen faucet or fighting the hoards at Costco?

If you are going to risk a Costco run, why not avoid the bottled water war and invest in a quality water filter? You’ll save time, money and exposure risk.

Tap water isn’t going anywhere

Yes, bottled water is on the supplies list for disasters that threaten municipal infrastructure like earthquakes and hurricanes. But this isn’t one of them. The only threat Coronavirus poses to tap water is the ability of water utility employees to come to work. According to Slate, it’s highly unlikely the virus would shut down a major water utility. Even in Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter and most effected area, the tap water is still flowing.

In a 2006 article by Mary Van Beusekom, Denver Water director of operations an maintenance Brian Good said he needed just 110 of his 1,100 employees to maintain “uninterrupted service to its 1.2 million customers.”

The same may not be true for smaller rural communities, in which case do whatever you need to do. However, for the city dwellers, just turn on the tap.

Monkey see, monkey do

This piece in the Los Angeles Times suggests that bottle water shortages are simply a case of consumers actualizing their water shortage nightmares into realities. Basically, the fear of a shortage drives people to stock up, which actually creates a shortage and perpetuates the cycle. In other words: monkey see, monkey do.

Associate professor of medical education at Northwestern University Catherine Belling told the LA Times “it might not make a lot of sense, but it provides a feeling of at least doing something.”

What are your thoughts on stocking up for a Coronavirus quarantine? Let’s talk about it in the comments section below!

Feature photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.