Bottled Water Regulations Are Lacking
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a lawsuit that was filed against Nestle, the parent company of Poland Springs.
The lawsuit claimed that Nestle advertised that the water came from "some of the most pristine and protected sources deep in the woods of Maine," when it allegedly came from common ground water sources.Although Nestle has denied the allegations of the lawsuit, only time will tell whether Poland Springs water is actually from those protected sources.
Since writing about this lawsuit, I received many e-mails and letters about bottled water and the laws that apply to this industry. Apparently, many readers mistakenly think that the law requires bottled water to be the most pure water sold in the United States.
After researching this issue and reading several reports, including one from the National Resources Defense Council, many people may reconsider their perceptions of bottled water.
Most municipal water sources are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bottled water industry is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. What is most surprising is that city water or water from your tap is much more regulated than bottled water.
For example, under federal regulations, city water has to be disinfected before it is delivered to the consumer, while there is no requirement for bottled water to be disinfected. City water is not allowed to have E. coli or fecal coliform, while the FDA does not impose this same standard for bottled water, according to the National Resources Defense Council study.
Depending on the municipality, city water usually is tested hundreds of times a month for bacteria, while bottled water is only required to be tested once a week. Furthermore, under the law, bottled water does not have to be tested for parasites such as cryptosporidium or giardia, while municipalities that use surface water sources must be tested.
Cities are required to have their water tested for certain chemical contaminants once every three months, while bottled water companies must test only once per year. Last, city water must be filtered to remove pathogens, while bottled water is not required to filter any of its water, the study says.
Not only is bottled water less regulated than city water, the bottled water companies are not required to disclose their water sources or the chemicals, if any, that are in their water. Any consumer can contact its city water operator and receive a report detailing all chemicals and contaminants in the water.
Given the fact that tap water is significantly regulated, a surprising government and industry estimate is that about 25 percent of all bottled water in the United States is actually bottled tap water.
While your bottled water may be providing you with the most pure water available, the important thing to remember is that you might never know what chemicals, bacteria or other substances are in your bottled water until our legislators require full disclosure like the municipal water systems.
The Hidden Life of Bottled Water
Americans used to turn on their faucets when they craved a drink of clear, cool water. Today, concerned about the safety of water supplies, they're turning to the bottle. Consumers spent more than $4 billion on bottled water last year, establishing the fount of all life as a certifiably hot commodity. But is bottled really better?
You might think a mountain stream on the label offers some clue to the contents. But sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a bottle is just a bottle. "Mountain water could be anything," warns Connie Crawley, a health and nutrition specialist at the University of Georgia. "Unless the label says it comes from a specific source, when the manufacturer says 'bottled at the source,' the source could be the tap."
Yosemite brand water comes not from a bucolic mountain spring, but from deep wells in the undeniably less-picturesque Los Angeles suburbs, and Everest sells water drawn from a municipal source in Corpus Christi, Texas - a far cry from the pristine glacial peaks suggested by its name. As long as producers meet the FDA's standards for "distilled" or "purified" water, they don't have to disclose the source.
Even if the water does come from a spring, what's in that portable potable may be less safe than what comes out of your tap. Bottled water must meet the same safety standards as municipal system water. But while the EPA mandates daily monitoring of public drinking water for many chemical contaminants, the FDA requires less comprehensive testing only once a year for bottled water. Beyond that, says Crawley, the FDA "usually inspects only if there's a complaint. Yet sources of bottled water are just as vulnerable to surface contamination as sources of tap water. If the spring is near a cattle farm, it's going to be contaminated."
Let's assume your store-bought water meets all the safety standards. What about the bottle? Because containers that sit for weeks or months at room temperature are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria, a bottle that met federal safety standards when it left the plant might have unsafe bacteria levels by the time you buy it. And because manufacturers aren't required to put expiration dates on bottles, there's no telling how long the bottles have spent on a loading dock or on store shelves (Bacteria also thrive on the wet, warm rim of an unrefrigerated bottle, so avoid letting a bottle sit around for too long). But even more troubling is what may be leaching from the plastic containers. Scientists at the FDA found traces of bisphenol A - an endocrine disrupter that can alter the reproductive development of animals - after 39 weeks in water held at room temperature in large polycarbonate containers (like that carboy atop your office water cooler).
Is Bottled Water Worth The Price?
On the water front, America is split into two factions: on the one hand , there's the shrinking majority that still drinks its water from taps at a cost that rarely exceeds a penny a gallon. On the other hand, there's the growing majority that demands bottled water at a cost that routinely tops the cost of gasoline.
Just why Americans are 10 times likelier to drink bottled water today than a generation ago is something of a mystery. Most water has no discernible taste or flavor. It's abundant and available free. Death by tap water is about as likely as death by lightning.
To marketing experts, the explanation is clear as Perrier. People aren't buying bottled water; they're buying an emblem of their discriminating taste, a global icon for health-consciousness. They're buying, according to Laurie Ries (a marketing consultant at Ries & Ries in Atlanta who has advised the French bottler Evian), "America's most affordable status symbol."
Demographically, bottled water is most popular among Americans to whom appearance is most important: younger, better-educated singles in outdoorsy states like California.
Bottled-water drinkers, marketing surveys show, are also richer than tap-water drinkers. That figures: consumer behaviorists say one source of satisfaction from drinking bottled water is an affirmation that the drinker can afford it. To others, adds Ries, "It shows you are well-off enough to pay for something you don't necessarily need."
This same loopy logic applies to other aspects of the bottled-water habit:
Drinkers consider bottled water safer than tap water, even though public health experts say U.S. tap water is almost always safe.
Consumers say they're environmentally conscious, but plastic bottles are a landfill bane in communities where they're not recycled.
Plastic bottles cost about 10 cents or more, making them, like beer cans, far more expensive than the contents that consumers say they're buying.
Bottled-water drinkers seem to ignore an occasional plastic taste that's starting to worry some scientists.
Bottom line: Expect no rational answers to the question of whether bottled water is worth its price. All that's available is some market data and a little news.
Americans buy two kinds of bottled water. One is a substitute for tap water; the other a substitute for soft drinks. The tap-water substitute started out a dairy sideline, so it's measured by the gallon and often sold in jugs. Bottled water the beverage, on the other hand, is a European tradition, measured in liters and sold at premium prices.
Since 1976, America's taste for bottled water of both kinds has grown more than tenfold, from 255 million gallons to 3 billion. Driving growth now is the "retail premium" segment of the market - 1.5 liters or less in clear plastic.
What's in the water?
America's water bottlers long have claimed that their products are superior to what pours out of taps, but don't seem to want to prove it.
Most bottlers are opposing a Food and Drug Administration suggestion that trace chemicals and minerals found in their products be disclosed in the same detail that community water works soon will have to provide on each consumer's water bill.
Labels also would tell consumers exactly where water comes from. For brands like Everest, drawn from wells in pancake-flat Corpus Christi, Texas, and Yosemite, whose source is in Fullerton, Calif., near the Los Angeles Freeway, this could be embarrassing. For that matter, Poland Spring water, America's best-seller, doesn't sound like it's well water drawn through 12-inch pipes. But that's what most of it is.
Recommendations of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council
The National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) is concerned that quality assurance of bottled water - through testing and reporting - may not be adequate to protect public health. Our concerns include, but are not limited to, the following:
We believe that some bottlers do not accurately identify the source and treatment of the water. Additionally, some bottlers may claim that water is free of protozoa when the labeling is unlikely to be accurate in all cases, leaving immune-compromised people in an "at-risk" situation.
Bottled waters, unlike most processed food products, are not required to publicize a shelf life. Yet it is likely that their quality diminishes over time. Many water bottlers do explicitly state an expiration date for their product, indicating that the issue of shelf life is a legitimate one. Related to this concern, questions have been raised about the safety of some packaging when bottled waters are not consumed within a defined period.
Tracking of distribution of bottled waters:
The labeling of bottled water often does not track sales in a way that would permit location and identification of lots that may (retrospectively) be identified as contaminated.
Monitoring of compliance with public health standards:
Public health safety is in part assured by frequent testing of public drinking water and by the reporting and monitoring of this data by governmental authorities. Based upon FDA and industry representations made to NDWAC, the harmonization between public drinking water and bottled waters of testing requirements may be beneficial. For instance, there is no requirement that bottlers test their water for certain contaminants more frequently than once a year. We are aware that bottlers are only infrequently inspected by the FDA and that specific testing for cryptosporidium with advanced methods (such as EPA Method 1623) is not routinely performed. Lastly, the FDA does not currently have a centralized database of bottled water compliance; nor does it actively monitor State information.
Consumers have a right to know what is in a product and should have a clear and reasonable way to obtain information about a product that may be deficient or inappropriate given their health concerns. Consumers in the United States are provided with detailed information about their public drinking water supply on an annual basis. In contrast, the current process for meeting consumer information needs regarding bottled waters is, in our opinion, deficient and does not meet consumer needs.
It appears that there is almost no oversight or monitoring of bottlers whose operations fall entirely within a state that does not have a specific state-based bottled water monitoring program. Moreover, it appears that many states have only minimally staffed oversight and monitoring programs for bottled water.
Drinking Water For Health
(48 ounces) is prescribed for
everyone, especially for dieters,
cardiac post-ops, cleansings,
and kidney health. Water Health
Plans say: NO sodium (present
in spring and softened waters);
NO chem toxins; NO copper/lead
(from pipes, containers); NO
pesticide run-off. EPA lists
supplies across the US containing
those toxins, ruling out untreated
tap water in many locales. Health
advisors suggest bottled water,
depending on its treatment or
the source spring's mineral content.
Be aware that bacteria grow quickly
in opened bottles exposed to
air, requiring chilling, or filtering
water as needed.