While most of my work on bottled water is focused on the environmental impact of water withdrawals from aquifers and streams, there are also important issues of safety and labeling in the bottled water industry. Those issues were the subject this week of a Congressional hearing and federal Government Accountability Office report.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), held a hearing on the “Regulation of Bottled Water.” The hearing focused on the status and effectiveness of federal regulation of bottled water safety and labeling. The subcommittee invited representatives of the Government Accountability Office (which issued a report on the subject, detailed below), the federal Food and Drug Administration (which has primary regulatory authority for bottled water), the International Bottled Water Association, and the Environmental Working Group (which has also issued a report on contaminants in bottled water).
This week’s hearing on bottled water safety complements a previous Congressional hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Domestic Policy Subcommittee on “Assessing the Environmental Risks of the Water Bottling Industry’s Extraction of Groundwater.” I testified at that hearing and described the problems with the legal framework for bottled water. My recommendation was that we don’t need the federal government to regulate water pumping for bottled water. Instead, we simply need the federal FDA to stop encouraging the pumping of water from small, vulnerable spring water systems with its label rules.
The most substantive aspect of this week’s Congressional hearing was the GAO report, Bottled Water: FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water (GAO-09-610, June 22, 2009) (the full report is not yet publicly available). The GAO is known as “the investigative arm of Congress” and typically produces well researched and trustworthy reports. Its bottled water report focuses on federal and state regulation of the quality of bottled water to ensure its safety and the accuracy of labels or claims regarding the purity and source of bottled water. It also covers the environmental impacts of bottled water, relying on previous reports and studies.
The FDA’s bottled water quality regulations generally follow the EPA’s national primary drinking water quality regulations, as required by federal law. However, the GAO identified some specific instances where the FDA has failed to follow EPA standards. The GAO report found that the FDA has failed for over a decade to set standards for DEHP, an organic and potentially dangerous compound used in polyvinyl chloride plastics. The FDA also lacks authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results (unlike the EPA). Overall, consumers have less information about bottled water than tap water, which is regulated pursuant to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
While I appreciate the efforts of Rep. Stupak to continue to draw attention to this problem, none of this information is new, and in many ways the problems are not unique to bottled water. Bottled water has the same types and levels of chemical contaminants often found in tap water (of course, tap water is far cheaper and less energy intensive). But the real problem is that our rivers, lakes, and groundwater are still severely polluted with chemicals that can kill us, despite decades of knowing about the problem and debating laws and policies to fix it. We drink this pollution whether we spend a buck on bottled water or just use the tap. This isn’t a problem that can be avoided by changing what we drink. It’s a problem that must be solved by taking care of our water at the source. Water bottlers aren’t putting caffeine, Tylenol, fertilizer residue, and other pollutants into the water - we are. I fully support making water bottlers provide more information about the quality of the water they are selling, but the real issue is stopping the pollution and restoring the quality of our nation’s water.