A survey of websites and labels of more than 170 bottled waters sold in the U.S. found only three – and only one of the top 10 domestic brands – that give customers information about the water’s source, the method of purification and any chemical pollutants that remained after the water was treated, according to a new report by Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Nestlé’s Pure Life Purified Water discloses its water source and treatment method on the label and offers an 800-number that consumers can call to request a water quality test report. But the nine other top domestic brands – Coca-Cola’s Dasani, Pepsi’s Aquafina, Crystal Geyser, and – strangely – six other of Nestlé’s seven brands – don’t answer at least one of the three key questions:
Where does the water come from?
Is it purified? How?
Have tests found any contaminants?
Since July 2009, when EWG released its groundbreaking Bottled Water Scorecard , documenting the industry’s failure to disclose contaminant scores and other crucial facts about their products, bottled water producers have been under withering fire from consumer and environmental groups. The Government Accountability Office has taken the industry and the federal Food and Drug Administration to task for lax inspection and disclosure practices.
Unlike the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has jurisdiction over the nation’s drinking water and requires each water utility to make public the results of yearly water quality tests, bottled water companies are under no such requirement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the industry.
EWG’s new survey of 173 bottled water brands finds a few improvements – but still too many secrets and too much advertising hype. Overall, 18 percent of bottled waters fail to list the source, and 32 percent disclose nothing about the treatment or purity of the water. Much of the marketing nonsense that drew ridicule last year can still be found on a number of labels.
“The industry’s lack of information on source, purity and treatment of bottled water isn’t some coincidence,” said Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research. “Bottled water companies try hard to hide any information consumers may find troubling. They don’t tell where the water comes from and what pollutants they may have found. Their ads depict mountain streams and natural springs. Yet nearly half the time, according to the industry’s own statistics, they’re bottling tap water.”
Municipal tap water is the source for 47.8 percent of bottled water, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation's annual report for 2009.
Fiji Natural Artesian Water boasts of drawing “rainfall... purified by equatorial winds after traveling thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean.” H2Om Natural Spring Water promises a mystical “energetic interaction with the element that sustains your life.” And Oregon Rain Natural Virgin Water says its water originates “Over the Pacific Ocean, where fresh, cold air from the North Pole meets warm air from the equator, clouds dripping with naturally clean, pure water are produced. These clouds travel from the ocean, avoiding populated areas and arrive over the Willamette Valley.”
Major water bottlers are trying hard to look green. Stung by environmentalists’ warnings about out-of-control plastic garbage and source water depletion, they have launched expensive ad campaigns encasing their water in “greener” plastic like Dasani’s “Plantbottle” and Poland Spring’s “Eco-Shape” container. So far, consumers have been underwhelmed : bottled water volume dropped by 1 percent in 2008 and another 2.5 percent in 2009.
"Water bottlers are clearly having difficulty reading the writing on the wall or else there would already be clearer writing on their labels," said Leslie Samuelrich, Chief of Staff for Corporate Accountability International. "The public is calling on corporations like Coke to label the source of its water. State governments are calling for it. Congress is calling for it. The longer the industry avoids transparency, the more it forces the hand of civil servants to advocate the consumer's right to know."
"EWG's latest survey further highlights how far bottled water companies will go to obscure the truth behind their expensive gimmick," said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. "More than ever, consumers are better off sticking to a type of water whose source and quality is required by law to be reported to the public – that from the tap."
“EWG encourages consumers to get back to the tap by drinking filtered tap water,” the EWG report says. “It costs far less than bottled water and doesn’t come wrapped in plastic waste to clog landfills, clutter streams and rivers and build up in the ocean.”