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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

As Unclear as Water

Air Date: Week of July 10, 2009

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Labels on bottled water make it difficult for consumers to discern what is in their water: has it been purified or tested? A Congressional hearing and two new reports illustrate the lack of information that consumers have about what’s in a bottle of water. Host Jeff Young talks with Jane Houlihan, the Senior Vice President for research at the Environmental Working Group about the consumer’s right to know what’s in bottled water. We also hear from Tom Lauria of the International Bottled Water Association who says that the labels provide adequate information.

Transcript

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

New concerns are bubbling up about bottled water. We all know about the waste from all those plastic bottles. But two new reports and a recent congressional hearing focused on the labels on those bottles, and what they do not tell us.

YOUNG: The Government Accountability Office found that consumers get less information about the source and quality of bottled water than they do about plain old tap water. The non-profit Environmental Working Group graded bottled waters on the information provided and, let’s just say most major name brands won’t be making the dean’s List.

Jane Houlihan’s with us to tell us about that report. She’s Environmental Working Group’s vice president for research. Ms. Houlihan, welcome to the program.

HOULIHAN: Thank you.

YOUNG: Got me a bottle of Pellegrino water here because my throat’s a little dry. I’m just going to have a sip.

[DRINKING SOUNDS]

YOUNG: Mmm. You know, it says right here on the label it’s natural and it was bottled at the source. And I paid a pretty penny for this water. So I’m assuming, of course, that means this is pretty good for me, right?

HOULIHAN: It may be or it may not be. So often you can’t tell exactly where the water comes from or how it’s treated or even if it’s treated, and you can’t tell what contaminants it might contain. What we find is that Pellegrino in our scorecard receives a grade of F.

YOUNG: F?

HOULIHAN: F.

YOUNG: A failing grade, but it says right here on the label it’s natural. Let’s talk about marketing for a moment. We hear phrases like “essential,” “pure,” “crystal fresh”. What does that mean?

HOULIHAN: Right. Some waters are crisp. Other waters make claims about their healing properties. Some of them refer to legends. You know many decades ago Poland Springs claimed that its water gained its reputation for curative powers in 1793 when it cured a man on his deathbed and he lived another 52 years. You know, Evian water is the symbol of health and healing and general wellbeing. Lots and lots of claims on health and purity that aren’t matched by regulations that require that the data that might back those claims up actually be made public.

YOUNG: Now is there evidence that what we don’t know about bottled water might indeed hurt us?

HOULIHAN: Well, there have certainly been some recalls over the years. But FDA doesn’t prioritize the inspection of bottled water companies. So it really is very much a buyer beware market. We’re forced to trust that bottled water companies are doing the testing they need to do, that they’re purifying the water that they’re giving us what we’re paying for. You know, you often won’t find the data you need on the label to know exactly what you’re getting.

YOUNG: Now your group did some testing in an earlier report and you found some contaminants in bottled water, right?

HOULIHAN: We did. You know some surveys have shown that about a quarter of all bottled water drinkers buy it because they think it’s free of contaminants. We tested ten major brands of bottled water and found 38 different pollutants in that water. Everything from, you know, radioactive minerals to fertilizer wastes to toxic byproducts of water disinfection. And I think that would surprise a lot of people. This water is not pure as the driven snow, like some companies advertise.

YOUNG: But the contaminants that you found are they at levels that would hurt people? I mean are you saying for example that when one of these gets an F, that it might be dangerous to drink?

HOULIHAN: This is a grade that’s about transparency, not safety. So when a company gets and F, it’s because they’re not telling people very much about where their water comes from, how it’s treated or the pollutants that are in it.

YOUNG: So what’s your recommendation here? What would you like to see let’s say Congress do about this?

HOULIHAN: Well Congress definitely needs to beef up the law when it comes to bottled water and require that bottled water companies, first of all, label their source and treatment methods right on the bottle. And there are brands that already do this. We point out a couple in our report. Ozarka drinking water labels exactly what municipal water supply their water comes from and exactly how it’s treated after they take that water from the municipal supply.

Penta is another brand that does the same. So these things easily fit on the label, and other companies could be doing the exact same thing. And we also think that bottled water companies should be required to publish their test results. They are testing. They’re required to do that under federal law. So just publish those tests, make them available to the public so that people know exactly what they’re getting.

YOUNG: What’s your recommendation to consumers in the meantime?

HOULIHAN: Consumers in the meantime can use our bottled water guide to find brands that are providing more information on water source and treatment and testing. And also, look to filtered tap water as a superior alternative. It’s much less expensive, it’s purer that tap water, and it’s a great inexpensive first choice for the water that we drink.

YOUNG: Thanks very much for your time.

HOULIHAN: You’re welcome.

YOUNG: That’s Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group with the glass half empty, if you will.

Now from the glass half full point of view, Tom Lauria. He’s Vice President of communications at the International Bottled Water Association. Mr. Lauria says many companies are working to supply information.


LAURIA: Well we believe that it’s telegraphed differently on bottled water labels. If it says, “spring water,” that’s not just an accidental or fanciful term. That has real, U.S. pharmacopia meaning. We are making our companies through 800 numbers available to the consumer, and we’re trying to get on our website as much information about all their products as we can. This water quality information is important to some consumers, and it is available even as we speak.

YOUNG: Now, we took Mr. Lauria’s advice and searched out the 800 number in tiny print on the bottle’s label. An operator heard our questions about water testing and treatment and said they’d send us a report. By mail. In ten days or so.

Well, we won’t make you wait for more information. You can read those reports on bottled water and the industry’s response at our website, loe.org.

 

Links

Check out the report and scorecard of bottled water brands.

GAO report

International Bottled Water Association (IBWA)

IBWA congressional testimony press release

 

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