As if you didn’t have enough things to worry about, here’s a stunner that’s woefully underreported yet potentially life-threatening: arsenic at “unsafe levels” (apparently there are “safe levels” of arsenic?) have been found in some brands of bottled water.
There’s a certain irony at play here, since the rationale for buying comparatively expensive bottled water is that it’s supposed to be safer and healthier than tap water (though I’m sure there’s also a “chic factor” as some consumers will buy whatever product is deemed trendy in the media). After the highly publicized Flint, Michigan water quality scandal of 2015, sales of bottled water increased sharply due to perceived health concerns.
Thus, if it leaks out that bottled water is actually less safe than low-cost tap water, this would pose a major threat to the bottled water industry – assuming that consumers actually paid attention to the news and would alter their consumption habits accordingly.
That’s the problem: it’s currently America’s best-selling bottled beverage, according to the International Bottled Water Association, and it’s impacting the health and quality of life of millions of people, including children. And yet, the vast majority of consumers just assume that bottled water is safe and better than tap water.
If they only were aware of the research, they would be shocked. In a recent study, Consumer Reports identified 11 bottled water brands with detectable amounts of arsenic; 6 of them had levels of 3 ppb (parts per billion) or higher, and 3 brands that had been flagged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past decade for excessive arsenic.
Courtesy: Consumer Reports
Included among the offending brands are Starkey (owned by Whole Foods), Peñafiel (owned by Keurig Dr. Pepper), and Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water. Arsenic is a naturally occurring heavy metal that poses serious health risks, according to the FDA; ongoing exposure to small doses has been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, skin lesions, and brain development issues in children.
Anything above 3 ppb is considered dangerous, while anything above 10 ppb will trigger an investigation by the FDA. According to tests conducted by Consumer Reports, Whole Foods’ Starkey Water is nearly illegal at 9.8 ppb (isn’t Whole Foods supposed to be a healthy place to shop?), while Keurig Dr. Pepper’s Peñafiel contained a whopping 18.1 ppb of arsenic.
Keurig Dr. Pepper told Consumer Reports on April 15 that it had temporarily stopped production at its Mexico facility. In the United States, companies that exceed the federal standard for arsenic of 10 ppb can face disciplinary actions, such as voluntary destruction of their product and recalls.
Bear in mind that these beverage giants are perfectly capable of applying treatment processes to remove or at least reduce arsenic from the water. To quote Ana Navas-Acien, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York City, “With bottled water, why should you have arsenic in the water? There should be plenty of opportunities for treatment and remediation.”
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Some consumer advocates have questioned the 10 ppb federal guideline for arsenic in bottled water, with New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection saying that water with arsenic above 5 ppb shouldn’t be used for “drinking, cooking, mixing baby formula, or in other consumptive ways.”
Courtesy: FDA, Consumer Reports
Yet, no state has dared to go beyond the federal 10 ppb guideline. Moreover, enforcement has been sketchy: the federal government’s safety inspections of water bottling facilities hit a 15-year low in 2017, with 209 inspections that year compared to 371 inspections in 2010.
That’s how beverage giants stay “compliant” with the law: with Whole Foods’ Starkey bottled water samples staying just under the legal radar at 9.8 ppb, the company proudly announced that the tests “show these products are fully compliant with FDA standards for heavy metals” – technically true, but nothing to brag about.
The Whole Foods statement followed this up with, “We would never sell products that do not meet FDA requirements.” Note how the emphasis is on legal compliance, not actual safety. As long as they’re not getting shut down and the consumers keep on buying, they don’t see any reason to stop selling the product as is.
Meanwhile, Katie Gilroy, a spokesperson for Keurig Dr. Pepper (whose Peñafiel brand samples contained 18.1 ppb of arsenic), has grudgingly admitted that Peñafiel contains “somewhat elevated levels” of arsenic (18.1 ppb = “somewhat elevated”?) but followed this up with: “The independent experts with whom we are working have indicated that there is no health or safety risk to consumers at the current levels.”
Granted, Gilroy’s got a tough job: defending the clearly indefensible, and spinning what’s clearly a negative into a positive or at least a neutral. Even the International Bottled Water Association has declared that any product that doesn’t meet the FDA’s 10 ppb standard for arsenic “should not be allowed to be sold” – but then, the phrase “should not” has never been much of a deterrent to the behavior of mega-corporations, has it?
The next time you load up your shopping cart with bottled water backed by celebrity endorsements, vague health claims, and/or pictures of mountain streams, hopefully you’ll remember the little voice in your head telling you that all is not as it seems in the realm of consumer products – especially if you have a family that will be using these products.
And hopefully you won’t count on the government to alert you to the dangers posed by unsafe consumables: think of how lax the current FDA standards are, and how spotty the enforcement is. Besides, rather than test the water themselves, the FDA generally allows bottled water companies to do their own testing – an obvious conflict of interest if I ever saw one.
Tap water, in contrast, is generally more heavily regulated than bottled water – and while doesn’t automatically make it safer, it does present a counterargument to the assumption that bottled water is the safer, better alternative.
It also helps to remember how bottled water became so popular in the first place: advertising, and plenty of it. Susan Wellington, president of the Quaker Oats Company’s United States beverage division, once famously said, “When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.”
They didn’t get that far: some of us holdovers actually drink filtered tap water, or even (gasp) plain old tap water right from the sink. I guess you could say that we dare to live dangerously – or at least, we live according to our principles, not what the government and mega-corporations dictate.
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