A study by an environmental group of 10 leading brands of bottled water sold in the United States found they contained many of the same chemical and biological impurities as tap water, but an industry body said their bottled water was within regulation standards.

The two-year study was conducted by the non profit, Washington-based, Environmental Working Group (EWG) and was released on their website on Wednesday 15th October.

Study co-author Jane Houlihan, an environmental engineer and Vice President for Research at EWG said in a statement that consumers “can’t trust that what’s in the bottle is anything more than processed, pricey tap water”. They should expect better, she said, explaining that:

“The bottled water industry promotes its products as pure and healthy but our tests show that pollutants in some popular brands match the levels found in some of the nation’s most polluted big city tap water systems.”

The water quality analysis was carried out by the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory. Researchers found 38 impurities in the 10 brands of bottled water they analysed. This included disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue, traces of pain medication, solvents, chemicals used in the plastics industry, bacteria, and radioactive strontium. Across the 10 brands, the researchers found an average of 8 pollutants in each.

All the bottled water brands they tested were within federal standards for drinking water quality, but two of them fell outside Californian state standards in that their chlorine content was too high. These were: Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Choice and Giant Food’s Acadia.

The study authors said that:

“Cancer-causing contaminants in bottled water purchased in 5 states (North Carolina, California, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland) and the District of Columbia substantially exceeded the voluntary standards established by the bottled water industry.”

The authors did not disclose the identity of all the brands, saying this was normal practice for a study of this kind.

The president of the International Bottled Water Association said the study was “alarmist”, because there was an implied assumption that because the water contained contaminants it was unsafe, “even if it does not exceed the established regulatory limit”, he told the Associated Press.

The Association said bottled water wasn’t just tap water in a bottle. Some companies source their water from municipal supplies but they purify it using reverse osmosis and distillation. Such products will be labelled as “reverse osmosis water” or “purified water”, said a UPI report.

Municipal water suppliers have to tell customers what impurities are present in their tap water, and in most states they also have to say where the water came from and how it’s cleaned. Bottled water is not covered by the same rules, although in California, the companies are required to say whether the water came from a municipal supply and whether it contains chemicals that could be hazardous to health.

As well as the water quality lab tests on the 10 popular brands, EWG carried out a survey of 228 brands of bottled water. They reviewed websites, labels and marketing materials and found that fewer than half the brands described their water source (ie whether it was municipal or natural), or gave any information about how the water was treated.

The authors wrote that:

“In the absence of complete disclosure on the label, consumers are left in the dark, making it difficult for shoppers to know if they are getting what they expect for the price.”

The study’s recommendations call for improved regulation of bottled water, and also stronger environmental protection of all water sources:

  • Bottled water should be regulated by the same “right to know” standards as municipal water.
  • To bring bottled water up to the same standards as tap water, companies should be required to disclose all test results for all contaminants, all treatment methods, and the exact source of the water.
  • Federal, state and local policymakers must strengthen protection for rivers, streams and groundwater, from which America’s drinking water is sourced.
  • Source water protection programs must be improved, implemented, and enforced across the nation.
  • Consumers should drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water.

Annual sales of bottled water in the US exceed 12 billion dollars, and Americans today drink twice as much bottled water as they did 10 years ago.

“Bottled water contains disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue, and pain medication.
Olga Naidenko, Nneka Leiba, Renee Sharp, Jane Houlihan.
Environmental Working Group, October 2008

Click here for full report.

Source: EWG, AP, UPI.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD.