Bottled Water:

FDA Safety and Consumer Protections Are Often Less Stringent Than Comparable EPA Protections for Tap Water

GAO-09-861T: Published: Jul 8, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 8, 2009.

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John B. Stephenson
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Over the past decade, the per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States has more than doubled--from 13.4 gallons per person in 1997 to 29.3 gallons per person in 2007. With this increase have come several concerns, raised by public interest groups in recent years, over bottled water's quality and safety. For example, water quality testing conducted by some of these groups, and others, has shown that bottled water does not necessarily have lower levels of contamination than tap water. Furthermore, bottled water's potential environmental impact has also come under scrutiny. Several organizations have raised concerns about a low recycling rate for plastic water bottles, the amount of energy used to manufacture and transport the product, and the impact of groundwater extraction on local resources. This testimony is based on our June 2009 report, which is being publicly released today and addresses three issues: (1) the extent to which federal and state authorities regulate the quality of bottled water to ensure its safety, (2) the extent to which federal and state authorities regulate the accuracy of labels or claims regarding the purity and source of bottled water, and (3) the environmental impacts of bottled water.

FDA's bottled water standard of quality regulations generally mirror EPA's national primary drinking water regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act, as required by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) as amended, although the case of DEHP (an organic compound widely used in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride plastics) is a notable exception. Specifically, FDA deferred action on DEHP in a final rule published in 1996, and has yet to either adopt a standard or publish a reason for not doing so, even though FDA's statutory deadline for acting on DEHP was more than 15 years ago. More broadly, we found that FDA's regulation of bottled water (including its implementation and enforcement), particularly when compared with EPA's regulation of tap water, reveals key differences in the agencies' statutory authorities. Of particular note, FDA does not have the specific statutory authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results, even if violations of the standards are found. Among our other findings, the states' requirements to safeguard bottled water often exceed those of FDA, but are still often less comprehensive than state requirements to safeguard tap water. FDA and state bottled water labeling requirements are similar to labeling requirements for other foods, but the information provided to consumers is less than what EPA requires of public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Public water systems must annually provide consumer confidence reports that summarize local drinking water quality information about the water's sources, detected contaminants, and compliance with national primary drinking water regulations as well as information on the potential health effects of certain drinking water contaminants. FDA does not require bottled water companies to provide this information. Rather, as in the case of other foods, bottled water labels are required to list ingredients and nutritional information and are subject to the same prohibitions against misbranding. In 2000, FDA concluded that it was feasible for the bottled water industry to provide the same types of information to consumers that public water systems must provide. However, the agency was not required to conduct a rulemaking requiring that manufacturers provide such information to consumers, and has yet to do so. Nevertheless, our work suggests that consumers may benefit from such additional information. For example, when we asked cognizant officials in a survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia whether their consumers had misconceptions about bottled water, many replied that consumers often believe that bottled water is safer or healthier than tap water. Their responses were consistent with a 2002 EPA-sponsored Gallup survey, which found that the main reason consumers either filtered tap water or purchased bottled water was due to health-related concerns. We also found that information comparable to what public water systems are required to provide to consumers of tap water was available for only a small percentage of the 83 bottled water labels we reviewed, companies we contacted, or company Web sites we reviewed. Among the environmental impacts of bottled water are its effects on U.S. municipal landfill capacity and U.S. energy demands. Regarding its impacts on landfill capacity, we found that about three-quarters of the water bottles produced in the United States in 2006 were discarded and not recycled, on the basis of figures compiled by an industry trade association and an environmental nonprofit organization. Regarding the impact on U.S. energy demands, a recent peer-reviewed article noted that while the production and consumption of bottled water comprises a small share of total U.S. energy demand, it is much more energy-intensive than the production of public drinking water.

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