Bottled Water Lobby’s Misinformation Campaign

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, the lobby group for the bottled water industry used untruths, misleading statements and claims that were outright wrong in its attempt to dispel a study by Environmental Working Group (EWG) that found harmful chemicals in a number of popular U.S. brands.

Unfortunately, the list of false and misleading statements made by the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is rather long, but EWG prides itself on using the most accurate data in its research and setting the record straight with most accurate information available.

IBWA: EWG tests show that two bottled water samples did not meet a California state standard for one regulated substance.

Fact: EWG tests show that three bottled water samples from two cities exceeded limits for known and suspected carcinogens set by California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (also known as Proposition 65) and the California health code on two counts:

  • One chemical, bromodichloromethane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled a known carcinogen and which was found at levels three to five times higher than California’s Proposition 65 safety standard.
  • A family of chemicals, trihalomethanes, which the EPA, California authorities and other governmental and international bodies consider cancer-causing by-products of municipal water treatment.

IBWA: The California requirement for trihalomethanes is eight times lower than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard of quality for bottled water and the EPA maximum contaminant level for tap water.

Fact: The California safety standard for trihalomethanes is more protective of California citizens than federal standards set more than a decade ago. The EPA says that consumption of chemicals in this family poses a risk for potential health effects, including “liver, kidney or central nervous system problems; increased risk of cancer.”

IBWA appears to have shifted its position overnight. Its initial statement, above, released October 14, suggested that California’s safety standard for trihalomethanes is too high. But the next day, Joe Doss, president of the International Bottled Water Association, was quoted by MS-NBC as saying he would not defend any company that is exceeding the standard in California. "If they have exceeded it, they should meet it," he said, according to MS-NBC.

IBWA: The EWG report is based on the faulty premise that if any substance is present in a bottled water product, even if it does not exceed the established regulatory limit or no standard has been set, then it’s a health concern.

Fact: The EWG report clearly identifies the levels of pollutants detected in bottled water samples and the federal and state legal standards for those pollutants, but it also acknowledges that the health effects of life-long exposure to this mixture of pollutants are not known. EWG’s position is that consumers have a right to know about all the contaminants present in bottled water.

IBWA: EWG claims that the presence of bacteria, measured by the HPC (heterotrophic plate count) method, is a contaminant. But these levels did not exceed any state or federal standard, and bacteria are commonly found at these same levels in many foods, with no adverse health consequences.

Fact: EPA clearly states on its Safewater website that the presence of bacteria, measured by the HPC method, serves as an indicator of the overall hygiene at the production site. EWG measured bacteria in the context of EPA’s judgment that “the lower the concentration of bacteria in drinking water, the better maintained the water system is.”

IBWA: The IBWA Code of Practice limit for trihalomethanes is the same as the California standard. However, neither of the two brands mentioned by the EWG was made by IBWA members. The decision to set the IBWA standard at this level was made to ensure that IBWA members who complied with its Code of Practice requirements would meet all state and federal bottled water regulations.

Fact: This argument is simply spurious. IBWA cannot have it both ways. It is consumer deception to say that IBWA members must meet the 10 parts-per-billion California standard for trihalomethanes but that it is perfectly fine for producers who are not members to sell a product that fails the standard, in these cases quite dramatically. The state of California has conducted rigorous risk assessments that are the foundation of its drinking water standards. By adopting them, the IBWA is implicitly endorsing the science that supports them and the state of California’s judgment that higher levels pose cancer risks sufficient to require a warning under state law. The notion put forth by IBWA that this standard is arbitrary and that outside of California only bottled water produced by member companies must comply would be laughable if it were not for the fact that the contaminants in question are serious cancer-causing compounds. EWG welcomes IBWA’s adoption of the California standard for its own members. But until all IBWA members label their products as complying with the high California/IBWA standard, consumers have no idea whether they are buying a product made by an IBWA member.

IBWA: IBWA supports a consumer’s right to clear, accurate and comprehensive information about the bottled water products they purchase. All packaged foods and beverages, including bottled water, are subject to extensive FDA labeling requirements that provide consumers with a great deal of product quality information. In addition, virtually all bottled water products include a phone number on the label that consumers can use to contact the company.

Fact: It is not sufficient or relevant for bottled water to meet the same standards as cookies and cake mix. Bottled water should be held to the same disclosure provisions as tap water. Bottlers should disclose on the label the source of the water, the specific filtration method used, the frequency and type of contaminant testing conducted and the results.

IBWA: Consumers should search for information not on the label via a request to the bottler, and if the bottler declines to provide that information, the consumer can choose another brand.

Fact: The IBWA’s position is the same as EWG’s: Buyer Beware

IBWA: Bottled water is not simply tap water in a bottle. Bottled water companies that use municipal source water often treat and purify the water, employing processes such as reverse osmosis and distillation before it is bottled and delivered to consumers as a packaged food product. The product will be labeled as “purified water,” or alternatively, “reverse osmosis water” if it is treated by reverse osmosis or “distilled water” if it treated by distillation. If bottled water is sourced from a municipal water system and has not been further treated, FDA requires the label to state that it is from a municipal or community water system.

Fact: Consumers need to know the precise source of the water they drink and the results of all contaminant testing. Simply naming a type of treatment means nothing to the average consumer. By claiming to use treatment, the companies can avoid disclosing the source of their water. And there is nothing in the FDA rules to guarantee that the bottler has used high-quality, effective treatment.

IBWA: In addition to federal and state regulations, members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) are required to adhere to standards in the IBWA Bottled Water Code of Practice that, in several cases, are stricter than FDA and state bottled water regulations. The IBWA Bottled Water Code of Practice is enforced through a mandatory, annual, unannounced plant inspection by an independent, third party organization.

Fact: EWG supports IBWA’s efforts to promote stricter standards. But the IBWA does not represent the entire bottled water industry and cannot vouch for the safety and purity of bottled water produced by non-IBWA members. Since labels do not routinely disclose IBWA membership, the consumer has no way to distinguish brands that adhere to IBWA standards from those that do not.

IBWA: EWG was critical of the bottled water brands found to contain fluoride, although the levels of fluoride found in the bottled water tested by the EWG were in compliance with the FDA standards.

Fact: Neither the FDA nor other authorities offer a one-size-fits-all safety standard for fluoride. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that babies and young children who consume too much fluoride can develop a form of permanent tooth damage called enamel fluorosis and estimates that 1/3 of U.S. children 15 and younger have this condition. CDC cautions against mixing infant formula concentrate with fluoridated water.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against giving fluoridated drinking water to infants younger than six months, and the American Dental Association recommends formula made with fluoride-free water for babies less than 1 year old. Bottled water brands that do not disclose the presence of fluoride deprive consumers of their right to know what is in the water they buy for themselves and their families.

And finally, can the FDA ensure bottled water quality and purity? Not so much.

EWG’s Investigation found that the FDA has rarely inspected bottled water plants – and if it has, to date it has not published the results. FDA’s website acknowledges that "bottled water plants generally are assigned low priority for inspection."

FDA regulations require bottled water manufacturers to test their product once a week for microbiological contamination but only once a year for chemical contaminants and once every four years for radiological contamination. Bottlers that process and package tap water can obtain a waiver of federal testing requirements by submitting the water quality report from the municipal water supply that is the basis for their product.

NOTE: The IBWA recently brought on board Tom Lauria, formerly the top spin doctor for the tobacco industry. We detect Mr. Lauria’s fingerprints on IBWA’s rebuttal to EWG’s scientific testing. In our view, he has had extensive experience distorting the facts and misleading consumers in an attempt to hide the truth about the industry that pays his salary.

What is IBWA trying to hide?

From the IBWA’s website:

“The career of Tom Lauria, the new vice president for communications of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), spans 25 years in some of the more challenging media relations and public affairs jobs — such as work he did for The Tobacco Institute…. In his new position, Lauria oversees the editorial content for IBWA’s Web site, IBWA’s Bottled Water Reporter bimonthly magazine and the weekly e-mail news alert Splash. He also is responsible for development of IBWA’s public affairs outreach.” IBWA, June 2008


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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