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.
"The bottled water industry boasts that its internal regulations are stricter than the FDA bottled water regulation, but voluntary standards that companies are failing to meet are of little use in protecting public health," the investigators write.
A spokeswoman for Giant Food Stores tells WebMD that the grocery chain is committed to providing "safe, fresh, wholesome, quality products" to its customers.
"We can say that the production process for our Acadia brand bottled water contains continuous monitoring and numerous safety and quality assurance controls, including a filtration process that assures that the quality of the product meets all regulatory standards," Director of Public and Community Relations Tracy Pawelski notes in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart says the company is "puzzled" by the study's findings and that it regularly tests its water for compliance and quality.
"Both our suppliers' tests and tests from an additional external laboratory are not showing any reportable amounts of chlorine or chlorine by-products," says Shannon Frederick, senior communications manager. "We're disappointed that the EWG has not shared more details with us as we continue to investigate this matter."
Doss says he finds fault with the way the study was conducted.
"The testing results show that only two [samples] didn't meet a California state standard for one regulated substance," Doss says in a statement. "There are many hundreds of brands sold in the United States that are not involved in this study."
He notes that the California requirement is much higher than the FDA standard.
Bottled Water and Regulation
Federal law requires that annual testing of municipal water quality be made available to the public, but there is no such requirement for the bottled water industry.
Naidenko says the fact that the industry is largely self-regulated with little federal oversight is a big part of the problem.
"The industry says it can police itself, but it is not adhering to its own rules," she says.
Doss points out that the EWG has long been critical of its product, but the concerns have largely been environmental, not health related.
The newly released report does urge consumers to choose filtered tap water over bottled water.
"It is unfortunate that certain groups are trying to make this a tap water vs. bottled water issue," he says.
He says the product has been unfairly singled out by environmental groups, and the industry is addressing environmental concerns by using less plastic and more recycled plastic in its packaging.
"We feel very strongly that any efforts to reduce the environmental impact of packaging need to focus on all consumer goods, and not just target one industry," he says.