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By Eric Magnuson, HoneyColony Original

Bottled water is a $22 billion industry in the United States. It took a modest hit during the recession — and in some major cities and universities, a bottle backlash has erupted. But still, Americans bought more bottled water than ever in 2011: 29.2 gallons per person, a 60 percent increase since 2001.

It’s an impressive feat for an industry that charges customers about 1,900 times as much for a gallon of what they can easily pour from their own kitchen sinks. Upward of 40 percent of bottled water is actually just municipal water from the public faucet. And tests regularly confirm that tap water is as pure, tasteful, and safe as store-bought water, if not more so. Meanwhile, the water sold in bottles on supermarket shelves is far less regulated than the water flowing from your kitchen tap.

“Neither the public nor federal regulators know nearly enough about where bottled water comes from and what safeguards are in place to ensure its safety,” said Democratic congressman Bart Stupak at a hearing on the matter in July 2009.

At that time, the Government Accountability Office and Environmental Working Group had just released two major reports highlighting how bottled water faced far less oversight than tap water. Stupak had convened a hearing before the Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee to change that.

“Just two of 188 (surveyed) bottled waters list specific water sources and treatment methods on their labels,” said Jane Houlihan, then EWG’s senior vice president for research. “Unlike community tap water suppliers, bottled water companies enjoy a regulatory holiday from (the Food and Drug Administration).”

The problem stems from the fact that tap water is regulated by the EPA while its bottled counterpart, considered a food product, is monitored by the FDA. The GAO’s 2009 report noted that quality standards between the FDA and EPA were generally consistent, but the FDA’s actual oversight of bottled water had fallen far short.

The FDA lacks authority to require bottlers to report test results, even when water-quality standards have been breached. Municipal water systems, on the other hand, must notify the public of violations within 24 hours.

To its credit, bottled water does have a “relatively good safety record,” according to the GAO. But due to regular FDA procedure, this means that bottlers are “generally assigned a low priority for inspection.” Throughout most of the 2000s, the FDA only employed the equivalent of 2.6 full-time inspectors to oversee thousands of bottled water facilities across the country.

When those 2.6 inspectors did make their rounds, “potential problems were identified in approximately 35 percent of the bottled water inspections conducted between fiscal years 2000 and 2008.” In a majority of those cases, the FDA allowed the bottlers to take voluntary action in fixing the problems.

While regulations regarding contaminants in bottled or tap water are nearly identical, one key exception existed then: The FDA had not yet regulated how much DEHP — a plasticizer linked to internal organ damage in animal studies — could be allowed in bottled water. The EPA had set standards for it in tap water in 1992.

Aside from a few reporters and disinterested Republicans, however, the hearing room that July was largely empty.

“With all of the life-threatening health priorities facing the FDA, this issue does seem a little secondary,”said Greg Walden, a Republican representative from Oregon.

Speaking for the International Bottled Water Association, its president Joe Doss brushed aside calls for more oversight, saying that current regulations were already stringent and that customers rarely asked for the source of their water. The only other Democrat appearing in the room was a delegate from the Virgin Islands; Stupak’s Democratic colleagues had their hands full elsewhere at another hearing on the country’s financial mess.

Still, Stupak’s hearing did make its way onto national news that night. And after being presented with the new reports, the FDA’s deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said that the agency would “carefully consider the conclusions of the GAO report and factor their findings into our future regulatory decisions.”

Little has changed after more than three years, however. As Corporate Accountability International’s water campaign director Kristin Urquiza says, “FDA’s oversight of bottled water is no different.”

Pretty Labels, Empty Claims, And Disinterested Politicians

While the GAO report focused primarily on regulation, the EWG study highlighted the lack of basic information found on water bottle labels — including the water’s source, treatment methods, and purity.

“Almost one-third of bottled waters have no information on their label,” said EWG’s Houlihan at Stupak’s hearing. “When you pay a premium price for bottled water, you deserve more than just claims.” At the time, only Ozarka Drinking Water and Penta Ultra-Purified Water listed the same information that is required of public tap water providers.

“The point of the reports is that it’s really hard to judge the industry’s safety record given the total lack of transparency when it comes to the quality of bottled water,” Urquiza says.

When the EWG conducted its own laboratory tests in 2008, it found 38 chemical pollutants in 10 well-known brands of bottled water. While most of the brands were tested anonymously, Walmart’s Sam’s Choice water was found to have excessive amounts of a cancer-causing chemical called bromodichloromethane. Both Sam’s Choice and Giant’s Acadia tested positive for disinfection byproducts. And overall, the 10 tested brands turned up about eight pollutants each, including pharmaceuticals, arsenic, and ammonia.

Also of concern are the dire environmental effects of America’s thirst for bottled water. For instance, the New York organization Riverkeeper notes that the United States uses about 17.6 million barrels of oil to satisfy its annual plastic bottle need. As much as 86 percent of those bottles end up in landfills rather than recycling centers.

At a hearing held by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey in 2008, the IBWA’s Joe Doss asserted that water bottles account for just 0.3 percent of the trash that ends up in landfills.

“There’s little solace in the fact that’s a small percentage,” Lautenberg retorted. “How many items in a landfill take up more than 0.3 percent? I don’t think a lot.”

Unfortunately, Lautenberg was generally the only senator in the room during his bottled water hearing. The senator has regularly put forward bills intended to closely regulate bottles, but they’ve merely languished in committees. Any progress in regulating bottled water takes years.

For example, at Stupak’s 2009 hearing, the GAO specifically called on the FDA to issue regulations on the chemical DEHP. The FDA’s Sharfstein readily agreed, saying the agency would get right on it. Though government moves slowly, of course — so slowly that the IBWA’s Doss argued that regulation was supposedly unnecessary by 2009: “The three principal materials used in plastic containers in the bottled water industry… do not contain DEHP or any other phthalate chemical.”

The FDA faced more opposition when it opened up the proposed regulation to public comment. Both ExxonMobil and the American Chemistry Council tried striking it down with numerous reports and PowerPoint presentations.

In the end, the FDA followed through on Sharfstein’s word — though not until late 2011, more than two years after the agency first agreed to it at Stupak’s hearing.

The Less Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Ultimately, very little has changed since Stupak faced a cadre of bored Republicans in his lonely hearing. The House Commerce and Energy committee opened an investigation in 2009, but nothing has come of it. Any information that the committee has received from bottlers has yet to be made public. FDA oversight is still lax compared to the EPA. Breaches in water-quality standards aren’t required to be made public.

When the EWG conducted a follow-up study on labeling a year after the hearing, it found that “more than half of the brands EWG surveyed either made no improvements in transparency — or revealed even less in 2010 than in 2009.”

Pepsi and Nestlé now include more information on their water products, but as CAI’s Urquiza says, “There’s still a whole host of additional bottlers who haven’t stepped up to give consumers the information that they’re looking for.”

For instance, bottle labels still don’t need to list the potential contaminants found in a supplier’s water. (The Natural Resources Defense Council has found that approximately one-third of tested bottles have excessive contamination.) And one of the most hot-button contaminants, BPA, has yet to be outright banned by the FDA even though it’s no longer allowed in making baby bottles or sippy cups. The chemical, which can leach into water contained in a bottle, has been shown to interfere with reproductive system development.

The good news is that anti-bottle proponents have seen a variety of victories on the local level: Over 140 cities across the country have taken action to reduce public spending on bottled water.

But these local activists don’t have a major champion in the U.S. House or Senate today.

The water safety bill that Lautenberg regularly introduces omitted mention of bottled water last year. Stupak retired in early 2011. And in a recent report, CAI found that House members actually spent at least $2,000 each on bottled water between April 2009 and March 2010. The Republicans at Stupak’s 2009 hearing may have had a point in that bottled water safety wasn’t a top priority.

There was still “numerous foodborne-illness outbreaks, complications with acetaminophen, and the swine flu pandemic,” Walden said back then.

But glossing over the industry’s regulatory oversight doesn’t stop Americans’ bottles from piling up in landfills — not only in the United States, but as far away as India (as noted in the short film The Story of Bottled Water).

In light of the mounting reasons to ban the bottle three years ago, Stupak held up a bottle of Dasani and emphatically said, “I don’t think we have to wait for a deadly outbreak of disease.”

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1 thought on “Shipwreck In A Bottle”

  1. Sinfully Wholesome

    Great article Eric!

    Plastic pollution is a man made global catastrophe. We have produced more plastic in the last 10 years than we did in the previous century. Most of it (about 1/2) is used only once then thrown away. But plastic bottles don’t just go away. They don’t decompose. They wind up in our coastal waters, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is made up almost entirely of discarded plastics.

    The bottled water industry is major, and as this article states, unnecessary contributor to this catastrophe.

    Consumers (you and I) can do our part to end the insanity by just saying “no” to bottled water. If we don’t buy it, they’ll stop making it.

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