• Kevin Elliott

Bottled water: can consumers count on quality?


More than seven out of 10 Americans – 72 percent – say bottled water is their most preferred non-alcoholic beverage, followed by coffee, 61 percent, and then soft drinks, 59 percent, according to a recent Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). And that preference for bottled water is rising.

"The results of this poll are consistent with recent consumption figures that show, for a third year in a row, bottled water is the number one packaged beverage in the United States," said Jill Cullora, vice president of communications for the water association.

What's more, those who had negative views of bottled water are decreasing, from about 14 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2018. However, not everyone is on board the bottled water train.

"The issues of whether bottled water is generally safer than tap water, whether consumers are provided sufficient information about the quality of their bottled water, and whether the federal and state resources being expended are sufficient to ensure the safety and quality of bottled water, are just as relevant nearly a decade later, especially since bottled water consumption has doubled," Natural Resources Defense Council Attorney Mae Wu testified to a Senate committee in 2009, referencing a report on bottled water written by the council a decade prior. "In addition, over the past few years, awareness and concern has grown over the environmental and health implications of the enormous consumption of bottled water, including the contribution of solid waste to landfills from the bottles, the effect on water scarcity in some source areas, and the large amount of oil expended in the production and transport of bottled water across the country and around the world, including its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions."

The testimony, now more than a decade old, remains relevant, as little has changed in ways of federal or state regulation of bottled water. Unlike municipal tap water, which must undergo quality testing that is required to be shared with the public annually, information about the source and quality of bottled water is largely lacking. And, while Michigan is now addressing PFAS and lead contamination in tap water, recent issues around the country indicate bottled products aren't immune from contamination issues.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health in July issued a bottled water consumption advisory stating that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were found in certain bottled water products containing spring water from the Spring Hill Farm Dairy, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The chemicals were found at levels that the health department recommends not be consumed by people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or by bottle-fed infants. The advisory follows a similar one in New Hampshire, where a spokesman for that state's environmental services department recommended the water not be used by anyone in the public. The bottled water products in that state tested between 61.6 parts per trillion and 68.6 parts per trillion, below the federal Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) limit of 70 parts per trillion.

PFAS are chemicals used extensively in industrial and consumer products to provide a non-stick surface resistant to water, grease or stains. They have also been used in some firefighting foams and cookware. In Michigan, PFAS has been found in more than 10,000 sites. Exposure has been linked to various health issues, including cancer, liver, thyroid and pancreas problems, hormone disruption and other concerns.

Spring Hill Farm Dairy initially announced it would install new equipment that would filter out PFAS chemicals. However, the company, which provides water in Massachusetts to Whole Foods, CVS and other locations, has since announced it will cease all water bottling operations.

In response to the contamination, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) urged the FDA to set a drinking water standard for PFAS in bottled water.

"Given the widespread persistence of PFAS in our environment and drinking water, many people have turned to bottled water to avoid adding toxins to their bodies," Blumenthal said in his letter. "In light of this, it's especially concerning that bottled water may contain PFAS in unsafe concentrations. My constituents, as well as many other Americans, continue to be exposed to these toxic substances. I urge the FDA to act expeditiously to tackle this national crisis in consultation with other federal agencies."

A federal limit on PFAS doesn't exist. While the EPA recommends drinking water to not have more than 70 ppt of PFAS, there's no specific requirement. Blumenthal asked the FDA to require products it oversees to have a level of no more than 70 ppt and limit to specific forms of PFAS to under 15 ppt.

The PFAS contamination issue followed high levels of arsenic discovered in June in bottled water brands owned by Whole Foods and Keurig Dr. Pepper.

In June, independent testing commissioned by the California-based Center for Environmental Health announced it found high levels of toxic arsenic in bottled water brands Starkey, owned by Whole Foods, and Penafiel, owned by Keurig Dr. Pepper and imported from Mexico.

The findings followed similar tests conducted in April by Consumer Reports, which found one of the products had arsenic levels nearly double that of the federal limit of 10 parts per billion. Consumer Reports said its scientists identified 11 brands that had detectable levels of arsenic, with six at levels of three parts per billion or more.

"Consumers are being needlessly exposed to arsenic without their knowledge or consent," said Michael Green, CEO and founder of the California-based Center for Environmental Health (CEH). "Customers typically purchase bottled water at exorbitantly high costs with the assumption that it is safer and healthier to drink than tap water, unaware that they are ingesting an extremely toxic metal linked to birth defects and cancer."

Despite knowledge of the presence of arsenic, the FDA didn't issue a recall for Penafiel's Unflavored Mineral Spring Water until June 21, 2019.

In terms of arsenic levels, Consumer Reports has recommended the FDA adopt a lower level limit of three ppb, opposed to the current 10 ppb.

Green, with the CEH, echoed concerns of scientists with Consumer Reports who are pushing for a lower arsenic level limit in bottled water. He said such reform is necessary, particularly in locations like Michigan where residents are especially concerned, and in some cases dependent on bottled water, notably following the crisis in Flint.

"It's a really relevant problem, considering the travesty in Flint, and it isn't the only place where that has happened. It's a real thing," he said. "The majority of people in this country have safe water to drink. The fact that very large companies which have sales going down for sugary drinks have decided that they'll increase market share on a product that the majority of people can get for free, then charge them and package it in a plastic bottle – it's not to benefit people. It's to increase their sales.

"It's the responsibility of our society, and that lands with government, to get people the information they need to know their water is safe so they don't have to go to the store and buy it in a plastic bottle and wonder if there is arsenic in it. We are too affluent a country on a whole to have people wonder if the water they are drinking is safe, whether from the bottle or the tap."

Other contaminants have led to recalls among bottled water in the past. In 2015, Pennsylvania-based Niagara Bottling, which at the time bottled for more than a dozen brands, issued a voluntary recall of products after one of its spring sources was found to be contaminated with E. coli. The company said E. coli contamination wasn't detected in the finished product or spring water delivered to the bottling facility.

A spokesman for the FDA said while bottlers are required to perform various tests on a scheduled basis, bottlers aren't required to share the findings of those tests directly with the public. Rather, that information must be kept by the companies for a minimum of two years and be made available to the FDA or its designee.

"The FDA does have oversight of bottling, and bottlers have a number of regulations they are responsible for meeting, including tests for pathogens, and that information is made available to the FDA," a spokesman for the FDA said.

The FDA said source water containing E. coli isn't permitted, and that any findings would preclude a bottler from selling that product. Bottlers are required to test for bacteria contamination every three months.

"The FDA has the ability to evaluate records and make sure they are in compliance with regulations," an FDA spokesman said. "In Michigan, the state has a contract to do that on behalf of the FDA."

Despite tests being conducted, the FDA doesn't require that information be submitted for review, nor for it to be shared directly to the public. Rather, water sampling and testing data must only be available for review during FDA inspections, or by another agency working on behalf of the FDA. And, although many bottlers do provide water analysis data, the information is often hard to find and lacks a comprehensive analysis, as there is no single source that makes all water quality reports available.

Further, a 2017 audit of bottle water regulations under the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, found MDARD didn't fully comply with its own policy to conduct routine inspections of water bottlers on a timely basis. Nor did the department actively pursue the identification and enforcement of unregistered bottled water products sold in Michigan to ensure fee payment and compliance with regulatory requirements.

Under the state's agreement with the FDA, MDARD is responsible for registering and periodically inspecting water bottlers and water dispensing machines in Michigan. The DEQ's approval of the water source is needed to produce and sell bottled water in Michigan. As of April 2016, 52 in-state bottlers, 115 out-of-state bottlers and 28-out-of-country bottlers were registered with MDARD, according to an Auditor General's Report issued in January 2017.

Inspection work related to bottled water is mostly done as part of broader establishment visits made to ensure overall food safety at processing plants, warehouses and retail stores. When a food establishment is licensed, it is placed on an inspection frequency based on the level of risk of the food operations. For example, large beverage processing plants may be considered high risk and inspected every six months, whereas a small grocery store may be low risk and inspected every 18 months. Bottled water, as a stand-alone item, would typically be considered low risk and scheduled for an 18-month inspection frequency, according to MDARD.

Auditors found MDARD didn't always conduct timely inspections of water bottlers and establishments with water dispensing machines. For instance, for the 2,643 inspections conducted by MDARD during the audit period, 587 (22 percent) were one or more routine inspections overdue.

The audit also found MDARD didn't pursue identification and enforcement of unregistered bottled water products sold in the state. For instance, auditors conducted visits to 71 establishments with bottled water products offered for sale and identified 20 unregistered bottled water products.

Auditors also looked at water samples and found one of 90 samples examined tested positive for coliforms, but E. coli wasn't found. One bottled water sample contained detectable levels of lead, but were below the federal maximum contaminant level (MCL) for the heavy metal. Thirteen bottled water samples showed levels of nitrate, but those were also below the federal MCL. Two samples tested positive for nitrite, but were also below the MCL.

A spokesperson for MDARD said she wasn't sure of the role MDARD plays in the bottled water process. The department failed to return a follow-up to questions prior to publication of this article.

Erik Olson, senior director of health and food at the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council, said while most bottled water is of good quality, some contain contamination, so it shouldn't automatically be assumed that bottled water is purer or safer than most tap water.

"The main differences is the monitoring and disclosure requirements – there are none for bottled water, which we find very problematic," Olsen said. "If you're drinking tap water, they have to release an annual report. That's supposed to be provided to every customer every year. There's no such requirement for bottled water. We tried to get one, and that was killed.

"The bottled water industry often puts a link or phone number on bottles. If you look at the reports they post, they aren't particularly informative. They usually include the total dissolved solids, but not always the contaminants that one might be worried about, and they don't use (samples) from each and every source, they use an average of each source. We find it problematic, especially because you're often spending thousands of times more for bottled water than tap water."

Olson, who was th