Who's 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 it’s not just in New York. Americans consumed 17 gallons of bottled water per capita in 1999 — that’s 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?

Regulated Enough?
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 woman’s throat bled after she sipped Perrier at a Japanese restaurant. The culprit: a form of sodium hydroxide, a lye-type cleaning agent. A man’s 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 pizzeria.
     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 industry spokesman.
     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 bacteria.
     And the group condemned current regulations as “inadequate to assure consumers of either purity or safety.”

Industry Takes Regulatory Role
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 EPA’s, 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 don’t even regulate the industry, the council says.
     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 inspectors.
     The industry’s 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.

Common 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 council’s assessment. Federal bottled water standards are comparable to those for tap water, says FDA spokesman Brad Stone. “I don’t know of any major problem we’ve had with bottled water in some time,” he said.
     On occasion, he added, the FDA may lag behind in matching the EPA’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t taste right to you, don’t 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 regulation.
     “People can’t be expected to have analytical labs in their houses, but we do have a choice to understand the purpose of regulation,” he said. “People don’t want to pay a lot of taxes but it does buy them things they depend upon.”