What’s in your bottled water?

At a House oversight hearing in Washington, D.C., yesterday, the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of the Congress, reported some disturbing news about the purity of bottled water. If the water harbors chemical contaminants, there’s little certainty that the Food and Drug Administration will learn about them. Which is curious, because FDA is the agency charged with regulating bottled-water quality.

The new GAO investigation was conducted at the behest of the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. It was probing data available about the quality of bottled water, which racked up revenues of $11.2 billion, last year, in the United States alone. That figure translates into annual per capita sales of some 28.5 gallons.

The new investigation found that “FDA does not have the specific statutory authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results, even if violations of [water-quality] standards are found.” Moreover, noted John Stephenson, who directs GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment Office, his agency’s year-long investigation found that FDA doesn’t make bottled water companies provide information on the quality of the source water they use, on any contaminants detected or on potential health effects associated with any pollutants tainting their products.

That’s in stark contrast to the Environmental Protection Agency‘s regulation of tap water, Stephenson reported. EPA requires regular testing by certified labs and a reporting to itself and consumers of any contaminants uncovered. Nine years ago, FDA concluded that bottled-water companies could do the same, Stephenson told the subcommittee. To date, however, the agency has not been required to impose such rules on manufacturers — and has not acted on its own to do so.

Which would probably be okay if the water that manufacturers were bottling was pristine. But in recent years, “bottled water has been recalled due to contamination by arsenic, bromate, cleaning compounds, mold and bacteria,” subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) noted. Just this past April, he said, “a dozen students at a California junior high school reportedly were sickened after drinking bottled water from a vending machine.”

In fact, part of the reason Americans turn to pricey bottled water — some 8.6 billion gallons of it last year alone — is that most consumers think it’s cleaner than their tap water.

FDA’s principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, Joshua Sharfstein, basically confirmed what GAO reported. Bottled water is regulated as a food, and FDA’s primary responsibility has been to see that it’s not adulterated during processing. Indeed, he mentioned that it was only a little more than a month ago (May 29) that FDA finally issued a rule requiring manufacturers to test for coliform bacteria — germs usually of fecal origin — in the water they process. Where any coliforms are detected, manufacturers must now routinely assay whether any are Escherichia coli, a potentially lethal germ.

The Environmental Working Group, a public interest nonprofit that focuses on risks of environmental contamination in food and consumer products, released data at yesterday’s hearing on its 18-month survey of bottled water labeling and company websites. Senior vice president Jane Houlihan reported that despite consumers spending some 1,900 times as much money for bottled water as for tap water, “far too often consumers have no simple way to learn three essential facts: where their bottled water comes from, how or if it’s treated, and what chemical pollutants it contains.”

For instance:

— only two of 188 bottled waters surveyed — Ozarka Drinking Water and Penta Ultra-Purified Water — list on their labels the source of their water and how it was treated. Recent water-quality test data also are available on their websites.

— none of the top 10 U.S. bottled water brands label both the source of their water and treatment method even though “some of these brands claim their products are ‘pure,’ ‘crisp’ and ‘perfect.’” The implication is that their water contains zero pollutants, Houlihan said — a purity “not possible for the drinking water industry to achieve.” Indeed, she noted, “An estimated 25 percent of bottled water brands that rely on tap water are drawing from supplies that collectively contain at least 260 pollutants” — from pesticides and heavy metals to trace residues of pharmaceuticals.

— Bottled water companies are not required to volunteer any findings of chemical contaminants, although they are required to keep records of them — should an FDA inspector ever stop by to ask for them.

Increasingly, studies are showing that groundwater aquifers, a source of many bottled waters, are anything but pristine. FDA’s Sharfstein told the subcommittee yesterday that “FDA believes it is feasible for bottled water manufacturers to provide consumers with additional information [on contaminants and more] . . . comparable to the data provided by municipal water systems.” However, he added, the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, under which food regulations are developed, doesn’t give FDA the authority to compel the disclosure of such information.

Was that Schafstein’s veiled suggestion that Congress should step up to the plate?

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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