Ruining the Bottled Water in the Big Apple ?
By Geraldine Sealey
N E W Y O R K, Sept.
15 Sniff before you sip, New Yorkers have been warned.
Six people have fallen ill here in recent weeks after
drinking contaminated bottled
water. So far, officials see no link among the cases, but
are probing possible criminal tampering.
In a city where the pricey potables are toted around like fashion
accessories, tales of bottled-water contamination are unsettling at best. Ad campaigns
touting spring-fed or glacier-born H2O are winning over a population increasingly
skeptical of taps and willing to shell out big bucks for what they consider a purer,
tastier and safer drink.
And its not just in New York. Americans consumed 17
of bottled water per capita in 1999 thats 4.6 billion gallons, according to
the Beverage Marketing Corp. In 1998, we consumed 15.3 gallons per capita. But just how
much safer is bottled water?
With FBI agents at his side, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Wednesday revealed three poisoning
incidents involving bottled water over the past six weeks. Two more water drinkers were
stricken on Thursday and a July 2 incident was revealed today.
The incidents involved three different brands purchased at six
different locations: One womans throat bled after she sipped Perrier at a Japanese
restaurant. The culprit: a form of sodium hydroxide, a lye-type cleaning agent. A
mans throat was burned with ammonia after he imbibed a bottle of Aqua Fina purchased
at a midtown market. And an 18-month-old boy fell ill after drinking an ammonia-laced
Poland Spring water his mom bought at a takeout restaurant.
On Thursday, a man complaining of a burning throat and nausea was
treated at a hospital and released after drinking an Aqua Fina in the Bronx. In nearby
Suffolk County on Long Island, another man was treated and released after drinking Poland
Spring water purchased from a 7-Eleven convenience store. And a sixth incident occurred on
July 2 in the suburb of New Rochelle. This one involved Poland Spring purchased at a
Drinking water experts say the incidents probably occurred after
the bottles left the plants and investigators are focusing on criminal activity. The
brands bottle their products in different locations and share no facilities, said an
The companies involved have said they will cooperate with
authorities and have no reason to believe the incidents occurred during processing.
But some say the incidents raise questions about how the booming
bottled water industry is regulated or not.
The Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental group,
issued a four-year scientific study last year saying bottled water was not necessarily
cleaner or safer than most tap water. The council discovered cases from several states in
recent years involving bottled water recalled due to contaminants such as cleaning agents
And the group condemned current regulations as inadequate
to assure consumers of either purity or safety.
Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while municipal tap water
falls under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency. Not only are the FDA
rules more lax than the EPAs, the council says, they exempt carbonated water,
seltzer, and products packaged and sold within the same state the latter accounts
for 60 to 70 percent of the market.
Water bottled and sold intrastate falls under the jurisdiction of
state governments, but roughly one in five dont even regulate the industry, the
The International Bottled Water Association, which represents
1,200 bottlers, suppliers and distributors around the world, adds another layer of
regulation. Among other things, companies must submit to one unannounced annual visit by
The industrys standards are even higher than those set by
the federal government, says Stephen Kay, vice president of communications for the IBWA.
But the NRDC is not convinced.
Sense in Order
Bottled water safety standards are pitiful, says Erik Olson, a drinking water
specialist at NRDC. There really is no federal oversight of any significance. It is
left up to voluntary compliance.
Olson is skeptical the water in the New York incidents was
contaminated during bottling or distribution. Nonetheless, he says, the cases highlight
deficiencies in the oversight system. Neither ammonia nor sodium hydroxide is covered by
FDA rules. The problem is that basically, the regulations that are out there at the
federal level are weak, he said.
Both the industry group and the FDA, for their parts, disagree
with the councils assessment. Federal bottled water standards are comparable to
those for tap water, says FDA spokesman Brad Stone. I dont know of any major
problem weve had with bottled water in some time, he said.
On occasion, he added, the FDA may lag behind in matching the
EPAs rules, but the standards are generally comparable.
Companies continually test their products and equipment, Kay
says. The [New York cases] are tragic incidents, but they dont bear on the
overall safety of bottled water, he said.
Gourmet water lovers should practice common sense if concerned
about their safety, says Dr. David Ozonoff, chair of environmental health at the Boston
University School of Public Health. If something doesnt taste right to you,
dont keep drinking or eating it, he said.
Ozonoff also believes the bottled water industry could use
stricter oversight, and says concerned consumers should appreciate the necessity of such
People cant be expected to have analytical labs in
their houses, but we do have a choice to understand the purpose of regulation, he
said. People dont want to pay a lot of taxes but it does buy them things they