PURE DRINK OR PURE HYPE?
Bottled water is not necessarily cleaner or safer than most tap water in the United States, and some might present a health threat to certain vulnerable populations, according to a four-year scientific study just released.
The study, "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype," surveyed 103 brands of bottled water available nationally or regionally. Produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the study showed that 33 percent of the tested brands exceeded unenforceable bacterial purity guidelines, or enforceable state standards, in at least one sample. The contaminants found included synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria and arsenic. NRDC undertook the study as part of its formal petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to have that agency upgrade its currently weak bottled water regulations and oversight.
The study also shows that most water tested was relatively free of contaminants and was of high quality, and therefore generally doesn't pose a health threat to healthy people.
The study's authors said, however, that the presence of bacteria in some water samples might present a health risk to some people, especially those with weakened immune systems. Those might include some infants, the frail elderly, those with AIDS, and some chemotherapy and transplant patients. Also, certain chemical contaminants found in some waters may pose cancer or other health risks.
The study, conducted by three leading independent laboratories, used testing methods approved by the FDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.The study's major findings included:
"Just because water comes from a bottle doesn't mean it's any cleaner or safer than what comes from the tap," said Erik Olson, NRDC senior attorney and the study's principal author.
Bottled water consumption has increased in recent years, driven in part by companies' marketing campaigns that hint-sometimes misleadingly-that the sources for these products are pristine, and that the water is absolutely pure. In fact, the study shows that between 25 and 40% of bottled waters are re-packaged municipal tap water which may or may not have been subject to additional treatment.
"People can drink what they want, but if they're going to spend up to 10,000 times more per gallon for bottled water, as opposed to what comes from the tap, they have a right to know what's in the water, where it's from, and that it's absolutely pure," says Mr. Olson.Regulatory Gaps
City tap water, although not perfectly regulated (as shown in other NRDC reports), is subject to detailed standards for testing and purity. By contrast, "Pure Drink or Pure Hype" shows that bottled water safety rules contain major gaps. For example, bottled water is required to be tested less frequently than city tap water for bacteria and chemical contaminants. In addition, bottled water rules allow some contamination by E. coli or fecal coliform, contrary to tap water rules which prohibit any confirmed contamination with these bacteria. Similarly, there are no requirements for bottled water to be disinfected or tested for parasites such as Cryptosporidium or Giardia, unlike the rules for big city tap water using surface water sources.
"Surprisingly, bottled water is essentially regulated on the honor system in most states," explains Mr. Olson. "There is no requirement that water be tested in certified labs. Bottlers are not required to report known standards violations. Unlike tap water suppliers, bottlers need not disclose to consumers known contaminants in their products.
"The increasing consumption of bottled water indicates eroding public confidence in tap water. We need to take action to assure that tap water is safe for all Americans. No one should feel compelled to turn to the bottled stuff in light of the cost differential and the laxity in regulatory controls in most states."
Written by: Natural Resources Defense Council
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