Drinking Water:

Inadequate Regulation of Home Treatment Units Leaves Consumers at Risk

RCED-92-34: Published: Dec 27, 1991. Publicly Released: Jan 21, 1992.

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Peter F. Guerrero
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the regulation, sale, and use of home water treatment units (HWTU), focusing on: (1) consumer and health concerns associated with HWTU; (2) the regulatory controls in place to protect the public from fraudulent claims or increased health risks; and (3) whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or other federal agencies should take additional steps to protect the public.

GAO found that: (1) dishonest HWTU marketers use such misleading sales practices as scare tactics, overstated HWTU capabilities, and false claims of government endorsement of their products; (2) ineffective HWTU pose health risks to consumers through continued exposure to contaminants; (3) consumers who need information on HWTU often do not receive it, since public education efforts regarding HWTU efforts focus on distributing information on request; (4) although several federal organizations have some jurisdiction over HWTU sale and use, no single authority exists to ensure that units perform as claimed; (5) although 21 states regulate some aspect of HWTU sales, installation, or use, only 3 states review HWTU test data before allowing sales; and (6) few HWTU manufacturers have had their units certified to meet voluntary product performance and promotion standards.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA responded that it was already publishing a pamphlet for the public on this subject, that it was among the agency's most requested documents and that many other educational materials on this subject were available from industry. EPA said that it would consider revising the pamphlet.

    Recommendation: To help consumers make informed decisions about purchasing HWTU, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water to educate consumers about how to determine if they need HWTU and, if so, how to select the unit most appropriate for their needs. Options include providing public water systems with brochures they can include in water bills, encouraging state and local health departments and agricultural extension services to distribute the brochures in areas not served by public systems, and working actively with public media to disseminate objective information on home water treatment.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agencies do not plan to develop a coordinated federal strategy to better regulate the sale and use of home treatment units or to ensure that units are effective through certification to national performance standards. However, EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have agreed on a strategy to better protect consumers from deceptive sales practices.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, in consultation with the Chairmen, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), should develop and implement a coordinated federal strategy to better regulate the sale and use of home treatment units. Specifically, the agencies should develop ways to: (1) ensure that the units are effective, possibly through some type of certification to national performance standards; and (2) better protect consumers from deceptive sales practices and potentially hazardous products, through stepped up enforcement of existing laws.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No action on deregulation bacteriostatic units--still no resources. OMB has returned OPP proposed regulations on water purifiers with several objections. No action on revising Establishment Number requirement. Due to limited resources and other higher priority activities, EPA does not intend to act on this recommendation in the foreseeable future.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances to act expeditiously to: (1) exempt from Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act product registration requirements any water treatment units using chemicals such as silver to inhibit the growth of harmless bacteria within the unit; and (2) require establishment numbers appearing on treatment units to be preceded by the words Establishment Number rather than EPA Establishment Number.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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