Wednesday, July 08, 2009

House Hearing On Regulation & Impacts Of Bottled Water

Jul 8: The House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Chaired by Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI) held a hearing on the "Regulation of Bottled Water" to examine the current federal regulation of bottled water. Witnesses testifying at the hearing included representatives of the: Government Accountability Office; Food and Drug Administration; International Bottled Water Association; and Environmental Working Group (EWG).

In his opening remarks, Chairman Stupak indicated that In 2008, Americans consumed 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water. He said, "Bottled water is a billion-dollar-a-year industry, with sales up more than 83% this decade. Many Americans believe that water they drink from a bottle is healthier than water that comes from their faucets. The Water Research Foundation found that nearly 56% of bottled water drinkers cite health and safety as the primary reason they choose bottled water over tap water. As a result, Americans are willing to pay top dollar for bottled water, which costs up to 1,900 times more than tap water and uses up to 2,000 times more energy to produce and deliver."

Stupak continued, "Over the past several years, however, bottled water has been recalled due to contamination by arsenic, bromate, cleaning compounds, mold, and bacteria. In April, a dozen students at a California junior high school reportedly were sickened after drinking bottled water from a vending machine." He said, ". . .municipal tap water suppliers are required to tell their customers within 24 hours if they find dangerous contaminants that exceed federal levels. But this requirement does not apply to bottled water companies. Certified laboratories must be used to test tap water, but bottled water has no similar requirement.

The Subcommittee received two new reports which Stupak said "raise questions about why the regulations governing bottled water are weaker than those governing tap water, as well as the widespread public perception that bottled water is healthier than water from the tap." One report was from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that examines whether Federal and state authorities are adequately ensuring the safety of bottled water and the accuracy of claims regarding its purity and health benefits. The second was by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which conducted an 18-month survey of bottled water labels and websites and concluded that just two of the 188 bottled water companies surveyed provided consumers with information on the source of their water, the manner in which it was treated, and any contaminants present.

The GAO report is entitled, Bottled Water: FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water (GAO-09-610, June 22, 2009). GAO indicated that over the past decade, the per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States has more than doubled -- from 13.4 gallons per person in 1997 to 29.3 gallons per person in 2007. The GAO report addresses three issues: (1) the extent to which federal and state authorities regulate the quality of bottled water to ensure its safety, (2) the extent to which federal and state authorities regulate the accuracy of labels or claims regarding the purity and source of bottled water, and (3) the environmental impacts of bottled water.

In its report, GAO found that FDA’s bottled water standard of quality regulations generally mirror the U.S. EPA national primary drinking water regulations, as required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, although the case of DEHP (an organic compound used in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride plastics) is a notable exception. Specifically, FDA deferred action on DEHP in a final rule published in 1996 and has yet to either adopt a standard or publish a reason for not doing so.

GAO also found that FDA’s regulation of bottled water, particularly when compared with EPA’s regulation of tap water, reveal key differences in the agencies’ statutory authorities. Of particular note, FDA does not have the specific statutory authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results, even if violations of the standards are found. Among GAO’s other findings, the state requirements to safeguard bottled water often exceed FDA’s, but still are often less comprehensive than state requirements to safeguard tap water.

GAO said FDA and state bottled water labeling requirements are similar to labeling requirements for other foods, but the information provided to consumers is less than what EPA requires of public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Like other foods, bottled water labels must list ingredients and nutritional information and are subject to the same prohibitions against misbranding. In 2000, FDA concluded that it was feasible for the bottled water industry to provide the same types of information to consumers that public water systems must provide. The agency was not required to conduct rulemaking to require that manufacturers provide such information to consumers, however, and it has not done so.

Nevertheless, GAO’s work suggests that consumers may benefit from such additional information. For example, when GAO asked cognizant officials in a survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, whether their consumers had misconceptions about bottled water, many replied that consumers often believe that bottled water is safer or healthier than tap water. GAO found that information comparable to what public water systems are required to provide to consumers of tap water was available for only a small percentage of the 83 bottled water labels it reviewed, companies it contacted, or company web sites it reviewed.

Among the environmental impacts of bottled water GAO said there are effects on U.S. municipal landfill capacity and U.S. energy demands. Regarding impacts on landfill capacity, GAO found that about three-quarters of the water bottles produced in the United States in 2006 were discarded and not recycled, on the basis of figures compiled by an industry trade association and an environmental nonprofit organization. Discarded water bottles, however, represented less than 1 percent of total municipal waste that EPA reported entered U.S. landfills in 2006. Regarding the impact on U.S. energy demands, a recent peer-reviewed article found that the production and consumption of bottled water comprises a small share of total U.S. energy demand but is much more energy-intensive than the production of public drinking water.

EWG released its 18-month survey of bottled water labels and websites, including top domestic and imported brands. They found that consumers spend 1,900 times more for bottled water than for tap water, yet they rarely know basic information about exactly what's in their water bottle. EWG said their survey shows that far too often consumers have no simple way to learn "three essential facts: 1) where their bottled water comes from, 2) how or if it's treated, and 3) what chemical pollutants it contains." [
See WIMS 10/15/08].

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) submitted 31 pages of testimony and concluded, "Bottled water provides consumers with a convenient, healthy beverage choice. The standards of quality for bottled water are as protective of public health as those for public drinking water by law and practice. Such standards for bottled water are applied to each container and failure to meet those standards may result in a recall or FDA enforcement action. If a consumer is interested about what is in their bottled water, they have multiple methods of obtaining it, e.g., from the company website, contacting the company directly, researching state websites which post the information or IBWA’s website. If they are not satisfied with the response or the information provided, they have many choices among bottled water brands."

Access the hearing website for links to all testimony, charts, reports and letters (
click here).