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Report: Some Bottled Water Not So Pure

Environmental Group Says Some Brands Have Pollutants and Chemicals; Industry Says Products Are Safe
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 15, 2008 -- Bottled water is widely considered to be a purer choice than tap water, but a new investigation finds that this isn't always the case.

In its test of 10 best-selling brands of bottled water, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found mixtures of 38 different pollutants including bacteria, fertilizer, and industrial chemicals in some of the tested brands at levels that were similar to tap water.

Several samples of Wal-Mart's Sam's Choice brand sold in California were found to exceed that state's legal limits of contaminants for bottled water.

"The bottled water industry really presents this image of purity, but our investigation demonstrated that it is really hit or miss," EWG senior scientist Olga Naidenko, PhD, tells WebMD. "We found a lot of variation among the same brands which suggests that at the moment consumers can not have confidence in their water."

But a spokesman for the bottled water industry denies the charge and accuses EWG of using "alarmist tactics."

"In general, the report is based on the faulty premise that if any substance is present in a bottled water product, even if it does not exceed the established regulatory limit or no standard has been set, then it's a health concern," International Bottled Water Association President and CEO Joe Doss says in a statement.

In an earlier interview before the release of the report, Doss told WebMD that "consumers can remain confident about drinking bottled water, which is a very safe, healthy, convenient product."

Testing Bottled Water

The water samples tested for EWG at a University of Iowa water quality laboratory revealed that 10 widely sold brands of bottled water, purchased in nine states and the District of Columbia, contained an average of eight chemical contaminants in each brand.

Two of the waters -- Wal-Mart's Sam's Choice and Giant grocery's Acadia brand -- bore the chemical signatures of the municipal water treatment plants in the areas where they were bottled.

Investigators concluded that the Sam's Choice samples sold in Oakland, Calif. and Mountain View, Calif. had been bottled at a single plant in Las Vegas.

The mix of contaminants and contamination levels were the same as in the local municipal water, indicating that little had been done to further purify the water after it was taken from the tap.

By law, bottled water that comes from a municipal water supply has to disclose this on its label, unless the bottler takes steps to further purify the water.

"Clearly, you would not expect to see the level of chemical that the samples had if the extra purification had been done," Naidenko says.

Specifically, the investigators found that:

  • Five of the tested waters contained fluoride, six contained small amounts of the fertilizer ingredient nitrate, and two contained the drug acetaminophen, sold as Tylenol.
  • Samples of the Sam's Choice water purchased at a San Francisco area Wal-Mart had levels of the disinfection byproducts trihalomethanes that exceeded the California legal limit for these chemicals.
  • Samples of the Sam's Choice brand also had higher-than-allowed levels of the chemical bromodichloromethane, which is a known carcinogen.
  • Samples of Giant's Acadia brand water also had levels of the chemicals that exceeded California safety standards, although the brand was sold only in mid-Atlantic states, where it met standards.
  • The report noted that levels of the chemicals in both waters also exceeded the bottled water industry's voluntary safety standards.

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