WASHINGTON -- The federal government proposed yesterday more stringent standards for bottled-water labels, hoping to clarify for consumers the differences among mineral water, distilled water, spring water and others.
Consumers are entitled to know the source of bottled water, as well as precisely what it contains, the Food and Drug Administration said in announcing the proposals, which become official Tuesday and are expected to become final in six months, following public comment. The actual changes in the labels would occur in about a year.
The agency emphasized that the new rules were not being developed because of any health hazards from bottled water but simply to ensure that the labeling is truthful.
"People should know what they are getting," said FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler. "If the label says it's mineral water, it should be mineral water. If it's from a municipal water source, the water should be so labeled."
The FDA also announced a final regulation that would set a ceiling on the levels of lead and other substances -- such as copper, certain pesticides and other chemicals -- that are permissible in bottled water to ensure that it is at least as safe as regular tap water.
Under that regulation, lead in bottled water could not exceed five parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency permits 15 parts per billion in public water systems.
The FDA standards are more strict than the EPA's because lead leaches into tap water from distribution pipes, while "there is no distribution piping in the bottled-water system," an FDA official said.
The $2 billion-a-year bottled-water industry -- which had petitioned for tougher regulations -- is expected to welcome the changes.
"These regulations will provide a comprehensive federal structure . . . and assure consumers their bottled water meets the highest quality standards," said Sylvia Swanson, executive vice president of the International Bottled Water Association.
It is believed that bottled water is safe, but the congressional General Accounting Office urged the FDA in 1991 to set stricter standards.
The proposed regulation defines mineral water, for example, as water that contains at least 250 parts per million in total dissolved minerals and water that has come from a source "tapped at one or more bore holes or springs, originating from a geologically and physically protected underground water source."
The proposed rules also stipulate that water labeled "spring" must come from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface or would if it were not collected