FDA expected to uncork new safety, label guidelines for bottled water

December 30, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Americans pay 200 to 1,000 times more fo bottled water than for tap water, even though they often come from the same source. The bottled version commands a high price because some people think it tastes better, and some think it is safer. The Food and Drug Administration now says they are entitled to know where it comes from.

So the agency was expected to propose new rules today for bottled water. One will define terms like spring water, artesian water and mineral water and require that labels describe them truthfully. The others will require that bottled water be the equivalent of tap water in quality. (Not all bottled water is as safe as municipal water.)

"Finally," said Claudia Bevill, a special assistant to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which has long sought such regulations. "Time works slowly at the FDA."

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who is chairman of the committee and the subcommittee, held hearings on bottled water in April 1991. He, too, said he was dismayed at how long the FDA took to issue regulations, but added that consumers will now have "more accurate and complete information about the source and content of bottled water." The regulations are to be published in the Federal Register Jan. 5 and, unless other delays arise, will take effect six months later.

The consumption of bottled water has risen in this country to an average of 8 gallons a person in 1991, from four gallons in 1984. Ever since benzene was found in bottles of Perrier in 1990, the agency has been under pressure to set standards for bottled water.

In a 1991 report, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the 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," the report said, "bottled water, including mineral water, may contain levels of potentially harmful contaminants that are not allowed in drinking water."

Because there were no regulations, Mr. Dingell's committee proposed legislation on bottled waters. Ms. Bevill said the FDA released its rules because "they saw that legislation was inevitable."

The FDA's position has always been that bottled water is generally safe. Edward Groth, the associate technical director of Consumers Union, is inclined to agree. "It's not as if the world has been holding its breath, waiting for the standards," he said. "They don't have a high priority. Bottled water is not unsafe."

Ms. Bevill agreed, saying that safety was "not a big concern." More important, she said, are the misleading messages and the lack of information about sodium content on labels. "If consumers are paying extraordinary amounts of money for these bottled waters, they should at least be educated about what's in them," she said.

The new safety standards are, with one exception, the same as (( the standards set for municipal water by the Environmental Protection Agency. The FDA chose a lower maximum level for lead -- 5 parts per billion -- than the EPA's standard, 15 parts per billion.

Two other substances in bottled water have not been addressed in the regulations: fluoride and trihalomethane, or THM, a carcinogen that occurs in water that has been chlorinated. "Bottled water is routinely filtered," Mr. Groth said, "and filtering water removes THM, so it is very feasible to keep THM out of bottled water. But the filters need to be kept clean. It's a matter of quality control."

Fred Shank, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency "does not get out ahead of EPA on these issues." But under other FDA regulations, a bottler has the option of adding information about fluoridation to the label.

Under the proposed standards, definitions will be established for artesian water, distilled water, mineral water, purified water and spring water. (The definitions now differ from state to state.) The federal standards will not apply to nonmineral carbonated water, like seltzer water, soda water and tonic water.

Mineral water has been exempt from all FDA regulations. It will be defined as bottled water with at least 250 parts per million of total dissolved solids. The solids are the minerals, like calcium, found in such water. Mineral water also will have to come from a protected underground water source.

Bottled waters will have to give nutritional information on the labels, so that if any nutrients like calcium, sodium or iron are present in significant amounts, they must be included on the label.

Only certain health claims will be permitted: claims allowed on food labels will be allowed on bottled water.

Dr. David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that while the agency has no responsibility for making bottled water safer than tap water, "bottled and tap water have to be equivalent."

So, unless you think your tap water is unsafe, why drink bottled water? "It's an issue of consumer choice," Dr. Kessler said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.