A Series on Sustainable Planet, People + Prosperity
[O]ur investigations have found issues that are absolutely inconsistent with our internal requirements…
— OSI Group statement concerning tainted meat produced at its Chinese subsidiary, Shanghai Husi, and sold to Hong Kong McDonald’s; issued July 28, 2014
The good news is that I’ve not eaten at a Hong Kong McDonald’s and, not surprisingly, since an earlier post about Hong Kong’s tap water safety I’ve not suffered any apparent ill effects from continuing to drink water straight from the faucet. The bad news is that although I’ve run across a few more fountains here, they are still few and far between and bottled water use seems as pervasive as ever.
The problems with the energy required to transport bottled water and the waste from its containers are well known. More about that in a future post. Since bottled water is 500 to 5,000 times more expensive than tap water, it should be better in some way, shouldn’t it? Is it safer?
Do we know if bottled water is safe?
Unlike Hong Kong Water Supplies Department (WSD) water, which is tested regularly and whose water quality data is published annually, bottled HK water apparently is not required to be tested. The Hong Kong Government’s Centre for Food Safety (CFS) does state, “The [bottled water] trade should ensure their products are fit for consumption and meet the microbiological criteria stipulated in the “Microbiological Guidelines for Ready-to-eat Food.” But that means little without mandatory testing and enforcement. And as far as I can tell neither CFS nor the Guidelines require that bottled water suppliers do testing or provide evidence of any sort to prove that their products really are “fit for consumption” or meet Guidelines’ microbiological criteria.
Even if producers are doing voluntary testing, the results are not required to be made public. Like most big business in Hong Kong, the bottled water industry in essence is not regulated. Apparently the public is supposed to rely on the good intentions of bottled water suppliers. Fortunately that seems to have worked so far. However, as the recent news of the McDonald’s misinformation about using tainted meat from the Shanghai subsidiary of an American meat supplier makes plain, relying on food producers and purveyors to provide safe products may not be so wise.
But at least CFS acknowledges the possible shortcomings of HK bottled water, warning, “People with lower immunity should avoid bottled water that has not undergone . . . distillation or reverse osmosis. Water from [plastic bottles] for water dispensers should be boiled before consuming. Advice from healthcare professionals should be sought if necessary. . . . Mineral water is not suitable for preparing infant formula.” That sounds like the HK government at best doesn’t know if bottled water is safe and certainly wants to make sure it can’t be blamed if the water isn’t.
Do we know if U.S. bottled water is safe? Before digging into that question I’d assumed that bottled water there, like that in Hong Kong, would be caveat emptor. But actually in the U.S. that’s somewhat less the case. Beyond federal regulations, the state of California has additional bottled water laws that do help its consumers and by extension consumers in the rest of the U.S. That’s one more reason that Sacramento has replaced Boston as the Athens of America, at least in terms of enlightened environmental and public health policy.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water nationally in the United States. FDA regulations require that bottlers test their products for a prescribed list of contaminants and maintain testing records for review by FDA field inspectors. Whether or not the FDA has the resources to provide adequate field inspection may be another story. FDA regulations do not, however, preclude more strict state control and since 2008 California regulations have required that all bottlers who sell water in California must prepare an annual water quality report (AWQR) and make it available to the public. Since almost all large bottlers active in the U.S. sell their products in California, essentially this means that contaminant data for most bottled water in the U.S. is available to consumers.
And it turns out that this also results in bottled water testing data for some international brands sold in Hong Kong. As noted in a previous post, business in Hong Kong is typically dominated by a few powerful local conglomerates. The bottled water business is no different. In 2010 the number one and three water brands in Hong Kong were Bonaqua (bottled by Swire Coca-Cola HK) and Watson’s. Between them, Swire and Watson’s accounted for over 44 percent of the bottled water sold in Hong Kong. Neither Bonaqua nor Watson’s seems to be sold in California so no water quality testing data can be found for them. But the 2010 number two Hong Kong brand, Evian, is sold in California and the Evian AWQR is available online.
Evian’s 2012 AWQR shows that its water contained four times as much mercury, eight times as much barium, and ten times as much uranium as Hong Kong Water Services Department (WSD) 2013/2014 water. Even though the concentration of those contaminants in Evian is well below allowable drinking water limits, for uranium it exceeds the EPA goal of zero contamination. To be balanced, there were a number of contaminants present (at below allowable limits) in WSD water that were not even detectable in Evian. But the Evian mercury, barium, and uranium levels do reinforce the fact that one should not assume that bottled water, even when testing data is available, is better than tap water. Additionally there are chemicals, for instance phthalates (a plastic component), that are regulated in tap water but unregulated in bottled water. The bottled water industry blocked efforts by the FDA to regulate phthalates. The wide-ranging website China Water Risk provides more details about contaminants in bottled water.
Unfortunately, both tap water and bottled water share a common concern — we don’t fully understand what contaminants need to be tested for. As an example, trichloroethylene (TCE) is a commonly used industrial solvent. From at least the 1940s until the late 1970s, spent TCE was discharged into unlined ditches, waste pits, and ponds near the Tucson International Airport. It seeped into the soil and polluted groundwater being pumped by Tucson Water to supply portions of its municipal drinking water system and is suspected of causing significant public health problems in Tucson populations who had high exposures. But TCE was not regulated as a drinking water contaminant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) until 1989, decades after it probably first entered Tucson Water’s system.
So although water providers, municipal and commercial, assure us that their products are completely safe because recognized contaminants don’t exceed allowable limits, no one can be completely sure. Chemicals whose long-term, low-level effects are not yet known are continually entering and becoming more pervasive in the environment. More testing and more research to know what to test become more critical. But more testing is only treating the symptoms of the problem. We need to start addressing and eliminating the causes.
All photos by Dante Archangeli.