Bottled water manufacturers are not required to disclose as much information as municipal water utilities because of gaps in federal oversight authority, according to reports released yesterday by government auditors.
Bottom line: The Food and Drug Administration oversees bottled water, and U.S. EPA is in charge of tap water. FDA lacks the regulatory authority of EPA, John Stephenson of the Government Accountability Office told a House panel.
The Safe Drinking Water Act empowers EPA to require water testing by certified laboratories and that violations be reported within a specified time frame. Public water systems must also provide reports to customers about their water, noting its source, evidence of contaminants and compliance with regulations.
By comparison, GAO said, FDA regulates bottled water as a food and cannot require certified lab testing or violation reporting. Furthermore, FDA does not require bottled water companies to disclose to consumers where the water came from, how it has been treated or what contaminants it contains. In a survey of 188 brands of bottled water released yesterday, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found only two providing such information about its product to consumers.
FDA should look for ways of providing consumers with this kind of information, Stephenson told the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "Our work suggests that consumers may benefit from such additional information."
Bottling companies could be required to provide a phone number on their labels so consumers can follow through if they want more information, said Joseph Doss, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. Doss emphasized, however, that bottled water is more strictly regulated than other food products to ensure safety across the board.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) yesterday sent letters to 13 bottlers asking for information regarding testing, water sources and treatment processes.
"[N]either the public nor federal regulators know nearly enough about where bottled water comes and what safeguards are in place to ensure its safety," Stupak said.
EPA and FDA have similar standards of water quality regulations, said Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs for FDA. The law governing FDA -- the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act -- requires that the agency establish a quality standard once EPA has determined a safe level for individual contaminants in drinking water.
That means FDA has generally adopted EPA's standards for contaminants in drinking water for its bottled water regulations. Some contaminants have resulted in different standards, however.
For example, EPA requires public water systems to treat their water to reduce lead levels that exceed 15 parts per billion. Because bottled water does not have to deal with leaching from plumbing systems, however, FDA set its standard at 5 ppb, Sharfstein said.
A notable exception has been regarding a type of a chemical used to soften plastic -- DEHP, a member of the phthalate family -- Sharfstein acknowledged. More than a decade ago, EPA issued a standard for DEHP in public drinking water. FDA deferred proposing an allowable level for bottled water because the chemical is allowed in some food packaging. This raised the concern that legal uses could exceed the standard, Sharfstein said.
But FDA has now determined that bottled water manufacturers do not use DEHP in their bottles, Sharfstein said, so the agency is moving forward with the decision to set a standard. Sharfstein declined to discuss a timeline, saying that it is now a matter of the time it takes to prepare a standard.
Click here to read Waxman and Stupak's letters.
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