Uncapping Bottled Water

Uncapping Bottled Water

You’re shopping at Kroger, choosing nutritious, organic products, when you reach the vast aisle of bottled water. You of course want your family’s drinks to be pure and healthy, so you grab a 24-pack of Kroger Purified Drinking Water. The snow-capped mountains on the label are reassuring, conjuring images of crystalline water gathered in a pristine wilderness for your consumption.

Now stop. Look closely at the label. You’ll see absolutely no mention of where the water you’re about to buy is from. The fine print merely says it’s “distributed by the Kroger Co., Cincinnati,” — which is in a subtropical climate and sees just 20 inches of snow a year. Come to think of it, how has this water been treated to remove impurities? And what tests have been performed on it to make sure that treatment’s effective?

There’s no way for you to know. Which leads to a bigger question: is it worth the four dollars you’re about to spend on it?

We don’t ask, they don’t tell

Bottled water is a conundrum of our consumer culture. In this age of global trade – of unprecedented variety and choice when we shop – we demand more for our dollar than ever before, compelling retailers to create high-performing, value-added products. In the arena of commercially prepared food, this has manifested itself in a push for greater information on both ingredients and processing techniques.

But bottled water is a remarkable anomaly — an instance in which consumers routinely pay a premium for a product with no evidence that it is superior. Just recently, the Washington, D.C.-based organization Environmental Working Group released the results of a survey it performed of 173 unique bottled water products. Of these, said EWG, 18% (32 brands) did not disclose the source of the water, 32% (55 brands) did not disclose information about the treatment methods used or make available water quality test results, and 13% (22 brands) published “water quality” reports that did not contain any water testing data (merely stating that no federal standards had been violated).

To be clear, EWG does not allege that bottled water products are unsafe. FDA regulates bottled water under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, and the industry’s leading trade association, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), requires manufacturers to attain certain quality standards as a condition of membership. What EWG does assert is that in most cases bottled water — which according to EWG costs on average 1,900 times more than tap water ($3.79 per gallon versus $0.002 per gallon) — is likely no cleaner or safer than the water you get from the faucet in your home, which is regulated by EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Nneka Leiba, an EWG research analyst and coauthor of the recent bottled water report, says that the chemical pollution standards set by the FFDCA for bottled water are similar to those set for municipal water sources by the EPA, and that the standards set by IBWA for bottled water “are in most cases exactly the same but no higher” than those for tap water.

“We can definitively say that bottled water is not required to be safer or purer than tap water,” Leiba said.

In fact, Leiba noted, a large amount of bottled water is just that — tap water. Using data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a provider of beverage-related consulting, data, and financial services in New York City, EWG has determined that almost 50% of all bottled water on the market is taken from municipal water supplies.

“Although some of this may be treated,” Leiba says, “you could fill your own glass with filtered tap water from your home and probably have a comparable product.”

The emperor has no clothes

As EWG notes in its report, there are two reasons why Americans need more information on the source, treatment, and relative purity of their water. The most obvious is expense.

“If I saw that the bottled water I buy is just municipal water from my state,” asks Leiba, “would I really pay 1,900 times more for it when I could just filter it myself?”

The second is that annual bottled water purchases are causing a “global gut” of plastic bottles, the majority of which are not recycled. According to EWG, every 27 hours, Americans drink enough bottled water to circle the Equator with plastic bottles (in a week these bottles would stretch more than halfway to the moon). Moreover, EWG says, it takes roughly 2,000 times more energy to produce bottled water than to produce an equivalent amount of tap water, and bottled water production and transportation for the U.S. market alone consumes more than 30 million barrels of oil each year and produces as much carbon dioxide as two million cars. These sobering facts are rendered more alarming by the possibility that these impacts are not offset by a benefit to the consumer. In fact, there could be detriments, as chemicals in commercial plastic bottles can in some circumstances leach into the water they contain.

So why do we keep buying? According to Leiba, there are areas of the country — such as the District of Columbia, where lead in the water has been a well-publicized problem — where consumers legitimately turn to bottled water out of fear. But for the most part, she says, shoppers in their zest for healthy products make the assumption that water that is bottled, sold at a premium and packaged with labels bearing images of the wilderness and referencing special meteorological and geographical conditions must necessarily be “pure.” (Oregon Rain Natural Virgin Water, to give an example, says its water comes from clouds that “travel from the ocean, avoiding populated areas” — “as if they had GPS,” Leiba says.)

The lack of evidence to support bottled water claims — direct or implied — is evident just by reading the labels. In its 2011 “scorecard,” EWG noted that of the ten best-selling brands of water, nine of them — Pepsi’s Aquafina, Coca-Cola’s Dasani, Crystal Geyser, and six Nestle brands — don’t provide any information on the water’s source, whether and how it’s been treated, and whether tests have detected any contaminants. The report, which makes no suppositions about the 173 products’ quality but is merely an evaluation of their transparency, gives each product a grade (the vast majority received an “F”) and features a “shelf of shame” highlighting products offering particularly nebulous claims or data. Surprisingly, the brands of retailers commonly associated with the natural foods movement, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, were among those that scored the lowest.

Legislation languishing, ineffective

EWG says it is pushing the federal government to impose stricter standards on bottled water so that consumers receive more information on what they’re buying. In June 2009, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on bottled water regulation after the release of two alarming pieces of research: EWG’s first bottled water scorecard and a report by the Government Accountability Office concluding that the FDA’s consumer and safety regulations for bottled water are at times less stringent than EPA’s protections for tap water. A Senate committee held a similar hearing in December 2009, during which Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would provide consumers more information about the origin and quality of bottled water (the bill expired with the last Congress and has not been reintroduced).

But no concrete action has been taken by Congress, and EWG reports that mounting scrutiny from consumer groups and lawmakers don’t appear to have manufacturers worried. In its 2011 scorecard, EWG found that 11 brands (15%) disclosed even less information than they did in EWG’s first scorecard from 2009, and that 27 (38%) disclosed only the same amount. (Twenty-eight brands, or 39%, disclosed more information).

Worse, the report raises the worrisome possibility that states’ efforts to regulate bottled water in the absence of more stringent federal laws may not do the trick. The state of California in 2007 enacted a disclosure law (SB 220) requiring manufacturers to make available to consumers beginning Jan. 1, 2009 the source of their water products and two ways to contact the corporation for a water quality report. However, the EWG report found that makers of at least 35 of 96 brands have ignored the law (others might be as well, but the absence of bottling dates on some products made it impossible for EWG to know if the manufacturers were out of compliance).

Just turn on the tap

So what can consumers do? Save money and the environment, says EWG, and filter your own tap water.

“The reality is that for most of the country the water is pretty good, and when you actually filter it you get very good water,” says Leiba. And because municipalities are required by law to publish water quality reports for their communities, consumers can reference them to buy filters that will target contaminants of concern in their immediate area. (EWG publishes a guide to home water filters on its Web site).

For the office, errands, trips to the gym and other small jaunts, EWG recommends carrying home-filtered water in a stainless steel bottle (to avoid contaminants from plastic). When traveling out of town, it recommends checking labels on bottled water and choosing only those products that respect consumers’ “right to know” by providing source and treatment information.

-Lucy Ament

February 2011

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