A major research and advocacy group known for its work relating to health and the environment has released its findings from an investigation into bottled water.
The public commonly see bottled water as the healthy choice but information gathered by the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests many companies do not reveal the sources of their water and how it is treated, while also failing to disclose results of purity testing.
According to Jane Houlihan, Senior Vice President of Research at EWG, "Bottled water companies try hard to hide information you might find troubling." This undoubtedly puts a question mark over the the assumption that bo ttled water is the healthiest option.
During their investigation EWG used a number of measures to come up with a grade for each brand of bottled water, a system the group first developed in 2009. They analysed the labels of 173 bottled water products and reviewed company websites to determine if they disclosed information on the source(s) of their water, if and how it is treated before being bottled, and whether the results of purity testing are available to the consumer. The organisation also looked at how effective the various water treatment methods actually are. EWG researchers then went a step further, placing calls to each individual company to ask if they were happy to disclose to the public the exact composition of the water in their products.
In developed nations tap water is routinely tested and the results are generally available for the public to review - this is not necessarily the case with bottled water however. For example, in the US bottled water is considered to be a food product by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and companies are not required to disclose specific information about their products to consumers. This policy is in contrast to the position of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which is responsible for regulating municipal water supplies and states on its website that consumers have the right to know where their water comes from and what's in it so they can "make informed choices that affect the health of themselves and their families."
The EWG survey found that 18 percent of bottled waters fail to list the source and 32 percent disclose nothing about the treatment or purity of the water. Despite growing pressure from consumers and advocacy groups in recent years EWG also report that few improvements have been made in the industry and that companies are much more focused on marketing gimmicks than providing their customers with important product information.
The survey revealed that among the ten best-selling brands in the US, nine - Pepsi's Aquafina, Coca-Cola's Dasani, Crystal Geyser and six of seven Nestlé brands - don't provide any information on the source, treatment, or purity of the water they are selling.
Only three brands earned the highest possible marks for disclosing information and using the most advanced treatment methods available - Gerber Pure Purified Water, Nestle Pure Life Purified Water, and Penta Ultra-Purified Water - earning them a grade B on the EWG scorecard. Only one - Nestlé's Pure Life Purified Water - discloses its water source and treatment method on the label and provides contact information for consumer enquiries according to EWG.
Filtered tap water was the only source of water to receive a grade A from EWG because as long as you change your filter regularly, EWG says it is purer than bottled water. Although using a water filter involves a fairly substantial initial outlay, over time it is cheaper than buying bottled water as the filters generally last many months and are inexpensive to replace.
EWG say they "support stronger federal standards to enforce the consumer's right to know all about bottled water." They recommend that until the FDA enforces stricter controls on bottlers consumers should use their scorecard to determine use their scorecard to find out which companies are most transparent about their bottled water.
It is worth noting that this survey did not investigate the plastics used in bottled waster packaging - which itself could be a potential source of contamination. Many plastic components are known to have toxic effects such as disrupting hormonal balance (endocrine disruptors). In addition, the bottled water industry is responsible for vast amounts of packaging that ends up in landfill sites. Bottled water is therefore not a good choice for the environmentally conscious consumer either.
Top 10 bottled water products (US sales) and their EWG rating
- Pure Life Purified Water (Nestle), EWG grade = B
Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water (Nestle), EWG grade = C
Aquafina Purified Drinking Water (Pepsi), EWG grade = D
Dasani Purified Water (Coca-Cola), EWG grade = D
Deer Park Natural Spring Water (Nestle), EWG grade = D
Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water (Nestle), EWG grade = D
Ozarka Natural Spring Water (Nestle), EWG grade = D
Poland Spring Natural Spring Water (Nestle), EWG grade = D
Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water (Nestle), EWG grade = D
Crystal Geyser Natural Alpine Spring Water (CG Roxane), EWG grade = F
The full list can be found on the EWG website here.