How Clean is Your Bottled Water?
This Vintage is 16,000 years old...and pure!

Jennifer Bogo

March 6, 2001

There's no question about it, bottled water has become a hot commodity. Americans pay $4 billion dollars a year for the privilege of drinking it. Sales of bottled water have grown nine-fold in the past 20 years, and tripled in the last 10, making it the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry. A third of the people who buy bottled water do so because they trust that it comes from a clean source, according to a 2000 consumer usage survey. But is the fragmented system that regulates bottled water really able to give people the peace of mind they pay for?

While the quality of public water supplies is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), bottled water that crosses state lines is regulated as a food product by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). City water supplies must assess sources of potential contaminants, but federal rules specify no requirements, like setbacks from dumps, industrial facilities or underground storage tanks, for the protection of bottled water sources. What's more, if the bottles are packaged and sold within the same state, as 60 to 70 percent of U.S. bottled waters are, they are subject only to state standards, which vary widely from each other and from federal guidelines.

Disinfection to eliminate chemical and microbiological contaminants has become common practice as a result. Although bottlers are not required to do so by the FDA, disinfection is required by at least five states, including such water-guzzlers as New York, California and Texas, making it an unavoidable step to marketing a national product. But a loophole has recently allowed one bottler to divorce itself from this system of inconsistent state and federal rules. By letting the quality of its water speak for itself, Trinity Springs is raising fundamental questions about the condition of all groundwater.

Water packaged under the Trinity Springs name flows in Paradise, Idaho, from a group of three geothermal hot springs, which rise through a crystal-lined granite batholith from 2.2 miles below the surface. Carbon dating places it at over 16,000 years old, and at its deepest it is heated to a temperature of over 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The absence of tritium, a ubiquitous product of fallout from nuclear testing in the 1940s, indicates its unusual isolation from surface waters and any other potential contaminants such exposed waters may carry.

After extensive contamination testing that exceeded both FDA and EPA standards, and is ongoing, Trinity decided that it wasn't necessary to disinfect its water. High levels of naturally occurring minerals -- silica and fluoride -- have instead allowed the product to find a home as a dietary supplement under the 1997 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. As the first and only spring source to take that approach, Trinity has raised eyebrows in at least eight states. None more so than in Texas, which outright embargoed the brand in July -- first for selling what appeared to be a non-disinfected bottled water within state lines, then for technicalities on the font-size of its mineral supplement label.

Why not just save itself the legal headache and disinfect for national distribution? "When you inject a high quantity of disinfectants, it creates a blank palette, destroying any naturally beneficial bacteria as well," says Mark Johnson, founder of Trinity Springs.

And besides microbes, good or bad, nitrogen, pesticides, solvents and arsenic have also been detected throughout groundwater supplies, and have subsequently found their way into bottles, regardless of disinfection. A third of the 103 bottled water brands tested in a four-year scientific study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) contained such contaminants in at least some samples, at levels that exceed state or industry standards. The results point out the limitations of an end-of-pipe solution to water-quality problems.

Chemicals typically used to disinfect water may react unpredictably with such substances, adding their own potentially dangerous element, as well. Chlorination, which can create byproducts suspected to be carcinogenic, is used primarily on municipal water supplies (from which 25 percent of bottled are actually sourced). Most bottlers use processing methods like reverse osmosis, filtration, ultraviolet light and treatment with ozone gas. Although ozone does create far fewer byproducts than chlorine, it may react to produce bromate, which in EPA studies has been shown to cause cancer in rats.

"Water has been commoditized, and the standards dumbed down to benefit large bottlers," says Johnson. "You can get away with a lot when you disinfect water. If you don't disinfect, you must protect the source and increase environmental awareness so that the source stays protected."

The need to protect our water supply is more important now than ever, with an additional three billion people likely to press its limits over the next 50 years, says the Worldwatch Institute. Groundwater pollution is essentially permanent, because it recycles slowly, remaining in aquifers for an average of 1,400 years. It's also exceedingly expensive -- initial cleanup of contaminated groundwater at some 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years, says the National Research Council.

"Obviously, the right thing to do is to have very strong protection of source water so that it's pristine, constantly monitor it and have public disclosure of test results on the label," says Eric Olson, lead author of the 1999 NRDC report. Labels on bottled waters now are misleading, says Olson. The FDA requires the disclosure of only three things: the class of water (such as spring or mineral), the manufacturer and the volume. "Consumers are most worried about paying good money for water that comes from a pristine source," Olson says, "while it may really be pulled from sources like the Akron water system."

It's a consumer-driven industry, says Bill Miller, president of the National Spring Water Association. "There are people who won't protect the source until it becomes necessary to keep from driving consumers away, and others who feel it's the right thing to do. Patronizing the companies that produce a high-quality product," says Miller, "will give them the income and ability to protect that source."