WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration's negligence in regulating the bottled-water industry has allowed contaminated water to reach consumers and has created confusion over product labeling, according to a House investigative report released yesterday.
Last year's worldwide recall of Perrier products, brought about by the discovery of unsafe levels of benzene, focused attention on potential health problems, said Representative John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
An FDA official told the panel yesterday that the agency considered bottled water safe. However, Mr. Dingell used the subcommittee study and a General Accounting Office report to support his contention that bottled water problems are widespread.
The GAO report noted that the Environmental Protection Agency regulated most supplies of public drinking water but that the FDA had primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of bottled water. Then it added:
"FDA has not adopted all health-based public drinking water standards established by EPA that set maximum levels for certain harmful contaminants, such as benzene -- a known carcinogen.
"As a result, bottled water, including mineral water, may contain levels of potentially harmful contaminants that are not allowed in public drinking water."
The subcommittee study listed 22 bottled-water products recalled last year because they contained benzene, styrene or mold. Mr. Dingellcited two cases in which manufacturers were allowed to continue operating even though potentially unsafe levels of bacteria were discovered in their products.
An FDA survey conducted last year revealed that water bottled by Lithia Springs Water of Georgia and Bean Speciality and Marketing of California contained millions of bacterial organisms per milliliter, though FDA standards recommend only 500 per milliliter. The water also contained dangerous levels of pseudomonas aeruginosa, a microorganism that can harm humans, Mr. Dingell said.
"You would not even be able to swim in water that had these contamination levels, would you?" Mr. Dingell asked Fred Shank, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition. "I'm trying to find out why you permit the sale of water this contaminated."
"The EPA told us they would haveshut the place down. But your agency didn't do that," Representative Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said to Mr. Shank.
Mr. Shank said manufacturers temporarily closed both plants to clean their equipment, but he did not know whether any additional action was taken.
Surveys show that many people choose bottled water for health reasons. But about 25 percent of the bottled water sold today is nothing more than tap water, said L. Robert Lake, director of the FDA's Office of Compliance.
The findings lent some support to a 1989 report by the Environmental Policy Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group, that said public water systems were the source for about one-third of the bottled water sold in the United States.
The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.