A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
When you think back on it, the commoditization of a resource that humans literally cannot live without happened relatively easily. After a year or two of people laughing off the idea of bottled water, it was accepted as a fact of life, and now has become the way the majority of Americans get their H2O.
Many cite the health and safety benefits of water encased in plastic in defense of bottled water, but there is no guarantee that the product is any different from what comes out of one’s tap. That was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
One study on bottled water by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, found “the purity of bottled water cannot be trusted:”
Laboratory tests conducted for EWG at one of the country’s leading water quality laboratories found that 10 popular brands of bottled water, purchased from grocery stores and other retailers in 9 states and the District of Columbia, contained 38 chemical pollutants altogether, with an average of 8 contaminants in each brand.
The study found that while Wal-Mart bottled water brand Sam’s Choice was no better than tap water, it also contained cancer-causing agents and other contaminants at levels that exceeded state limits. The group reports it is suing the corporation to force them to add a carcinogenic warning label on their water bottles.
The second study entered into the hearing’s record was from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report criticized the regulation of the bottled water industry. While municipal water supplies are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Water Act, the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of the bottled water industry is significantly “less stringent,” according to John Stephenson, who testified Wednesday as the director of the GAO’s Natural Resources and the Environment division.
While the EPA requires municipal water sources to publish and distribute annual consumer confidence reports containing detailed information about the water source, found contaminants and treatment methods, the bottled water industry does not have to comply with such standards.
In fact, the FDA’s already light regulatory requirements don’t even apply to bottled water sales that take place within one state, as the agency only has jurisdiction in cases of inter-state commerce. Therefore, it’s possible to be a bottled water supplier with absolutely no regulation at all.
“This double standard is unfair,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at EWG. “Without data consumers are left with marketing claims.”
And the marketing claims are at times outrageous. Aquamantra plasters their plastic bottles with self affirmations such as “I am loved,” insisting that such language changes the molecular structure of the water to make it more beneficial and tasty. Another company, H2Om, infuses its water with “words, colors, music and vibrations.”
Joseph Doss, the president of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), in which approximately three-fourths of bottled water providers have membership, told the committee his organization has nothing to do with advertising practices among its members.
The representative from the FDA, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, said there was little his agency could do under its false advertising regulations to stop such misleading marketing. But he did express interest in cracking down on one company that purportedly claims to aid in the curing of kidney and liver disease.
In addressing the criticisms in the GAO report, Sharfstein said that his agency only has limited powers to compel private industry to comply with greater reporting requirements, adding that he hoped Congress would pass the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, which passed out of committee earlier this year, but hasn’t been scheduled for a vote on the House floor yet.
“We really think that the passage of the food safety legislation will help,” Sharfstein said, adding that the agency’s reportable food registry, expected in September, will also aid in the FDA’s collection of information about contamination of food products.
One coming change announced by Sharfstein at the hearing was 15 years in the making. The EPA published standards for the acceptable levels of DEHP, a phthalate plastic known to cause serious health problems, in municipal waters well over a decade ago, but the FDA never did, even though federal law required it to do so.
The plan to regulate DEHP may be a little late in coming however, as both the FDA and industry representatives at the hearing said that no one in the bottled water industry uses the chemical anymore, which had been in use since before 1958.
Sharfstein said the real problem is the fact that DEHP is already in water supplies because of its presence in the environment, but Houlihan said the regulation of this one chemical is not enough to prevent the leaching of harmful chemicals into bottled water.
“This is a problem much bigger than DEHP,” said Houlihan, noting there are “at least a 100 different chemicals in plastic that could leach into the water.”
But from the lackluster response from most Republican lawmakers present at the hearing, it was clear that bottled water safety is not at the top of their agenda.
Though he admitted that bottled water is a nearly ubiquitous product, and a beverage of which more people partake than milk and beer combined, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) spent nearly all of his opening statement questioning the reason for the hearing. He complained about not having enough time to talk about biosimilars in the pharmaceutical industry and the safety of medical devices.
Burgess was joined by his GOP colleagues in disparaging the hearing’s subject.
“Certainly there are more pressing issues,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who took her time to rail against the terrible state of her local healthcare program.
Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) took up most of his opening statement in a paranoid tirade over the EPA’s supposed “bottling up of science and debate on the whole carbon issue.” His colleague Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) also raged against what he calls “carbongate.”
Committee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) pointed out on several occasions that not only is bottled water important, but the House — and in some cases, his very subcommittee — had held hearing on healthcare, medical devices and other issues brought up by Republicans as far more important that the hearing at hand.
“We assume because it’s in a bottle like this it’s clean, it’s healthy, it’s pure [and] we find it’s not the case, and that’s the reason for the hearing,” Stupak said, noting the bottled water recalls that have come about once every quarter since 2002. “I don’t think we need to wait for an outbreak.”
Granted, the other side of the aisle scarcely found the bottled water issue more compelling than the GOP. The only two Democrats present for questioning were Stupak and Rep. Donna Christensen (D-VI).
Concerns were also voiced over the sustainability of single-use water bottles. Not only does bottled water cost 1,900 times as much as tap water, but the environmental costs are astounding.
In their report the GAO found that only 25 percent of water bottles are recycled. The report also cited a study by the Pacific Institute that found that the total energy necessary to transport a one-liter bottle to Los Angeles requires between 1,100 to 2,000 times as much energy as turning on one’s tap.
“That’s really astonishing,” said Christensen. “I understand they’re convenient, but if were going to use them, isn’t there a better way?”
Conservative lawmakers at the hearing were much more likely to side with the bottled water industry, on the other hand. Ranking Member Walden told IBWA president Doss, “You’re kind of being singled out,” noting that soda products and other beverages have less reporting requirements than bottled water. Walden ignored the fact that municipal water regulation is much more stringent that bottled water, however.
“Water’s very different than other food products,” Houlihan tried to remind the ranking member. “That’s why it’s being singled out here, because of the special place it holds.”
While a recent study from the National Resources Defense Council reported that some 25 percent of bottled water comes from municipal taps, Houlihan said that number is likely higher because of lax reporting requirements. She said that the FDA only requires companies who do not do any further treatment of municipal supplies to identify their source. If companies further purify the water in any way, they are not required to say that it came from the tap.
Walden also repeatedly attacked the District of Columbia’s municipal water for its lead content, not noting that the lead problems there come from pipes in aging buildings, not the water supply itself.
“There’s no label on the tap,” Walden said. “And frankly, as long as it’s safe, I really don’t care.”
Stupak reminded Walden of the fact that consumer confidence reports are sent out each year to customers of municipal water supplies. Walden made a sarcastic comment about running out to his mailbox to immediately read the report, to which Stupak replied, “Oh, you don’t read it. OK.”
The GAO also found that it would be “feasible” for the FDA to require bottled water companies to report information similar to that which the EPA requires from municipal water sources.
Doss objected to a full accounting on each bottle, saying the reporting of contaminants “would just clutter the label.” He instead preferred a requirement of printing an informational phone number via which a customer could request the functional equivalent of a consumer confidence report.
Whether or not the bottled water industry will be subject to further sunshine and disclosure was not determined at the hearing. But it was clear that bottles as they appear today are vague and confusing, even to the experts on the hill Wednesday.
Stupak brought a Dasani water bottle from the plane he traveled to Washington in and read a the label to the witness panel, none of whom could offer a clear definition.
“I couldn’t decipher that for you,” said Sharfstein.
Thus, they were left with the Coca-Cola Company’s assertion of Dasani’s “pure, fresh taste,” and little more.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS