Quality of Bottled Water Questioned in Congress


Published: July 8, 2009
WASHINGTON — In 2008, Americans drank 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water, double the amount of a decade ago, with more than half saying they drink it because it is safer and healthier than tap water.

But at a hearing Wednesday, members of Congress were briefed on two new studies that question whether bottled water is safer than water directly from the faucet. Afterward, the committee sent letters to 13 companies requesting more information about the source of their water and how it is tested.

“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 Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the oversight committee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a statement about the data the committee was seeking. “The majority of consumers purchase bottled water because of perceived health and safety benefits, but they actually know very little about the quality of the water they are buying.”

While the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water, the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water, which is considered a food.

Municipal water systems have been required to distribute an annual report to consumers since 1999, disclosing the name of their water source and any contaminants found in testing, as well as the potential health effects of those contaminants.

Two new reports — one from the Government Accountability Office and a second from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization — question whether the regulation of bottled water is sufficient. The environmental group recommends that bottling companies provide detailed information about the source and treatment of their water, just as providers of tap water do.

“In so many cases we just don’t have the information on what the source actually is,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research of the Environmental Working Group. “Almost one-third of bottled waters have no information on their label.”

Just 2 of 188 bottle companies surveyed by the environmental group provided information about the water’s source and manner of treatment, as well as quality test reports online: Ozarka Drinking Water and Penta Ultra-Purified Water.

In addition, suppliers of tap water are required to notify customers within 24 hours about contaminants that exceed federal levels; this does not apply to bottled water. Nor must bottled water companies test water with certified laboratories, a requirement for tap water suppliers.

Some of the lawmakers questioned the need for more regulation of bottled water. “With all of the life-threatening health priorities facing the F.D.A., this issue does to me seem a little secondary,” said Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon.

“I want to know it’s safe when I drink it,” Mr. Walden said. “I’m not sure I care what spring it came out of.”

F.D.A. officials say that by fall, the agency would be able to carry out provisions of 2007 legislation that requires bottlers to report the results of tests showing that their products pose health consequences.

In a statement prepared for the hearing, Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner for the F.D.A., said the agency believed that the Food Safety Enhancement Act in development by the committee would take “some positive steps in providing additional authority that will help to fill some of the gaps identified by the G.A.O.”

Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the F.D.A., said in an interview: “We can do it. However, we have a very large regulatory portfolio. It’s been well acknowledged in recent years that we struggle with the whole staff and funding aspect of it.”

In the meantime, the agency says consumers should not be concerned that their bottled water is unsafe.

“We do monitor and inspect the bottled water, the same as we do food,” Ms. DeLancey said. “I don’t think that they should think it’s totally unregulated.”

Joseph Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association, also dismissed the fuss about the safety of bottled water at the hearing.

“They both have to be safe,” Mr. Doss said of bottled water and tap water. “There are just different ways that you get to that goal.”