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July 10th, 2009

Milbank Misses the Mark on Bottled Water

Some of you may have caught Dana Milbank‚ column in yesterday‚ Washington Post about this week‚ congressional hearing on bottled water regulations, A Congressman With a Thirst for Truth. What you may not have realized was how it misrepresented some of what went on in that hearing, while also glossing over many important facets of the broader bottled water debate. As a researcher and analyst for Food & Water Watch‚ water policy team, I was at that hearing, and I want to share with you some of my impressions of Milbank‚ column and the events that it covered.

First, Milbank wrongly states that ‚bottled water has not killed anyone and it‚ not even clear that it has made anybody sick.” But in April of this year, 12 students in southern California complained of nausea, headaches and dizziness after drinking Aquafina from a high school vending machine. The water reportedly had a foul odor and cloudy appearance, and the subsequent FBI investigation found no signs of tampering. This is not an isolated incident, as bottled water has been recalled for containing high levels of bacteria, algae, mold, arsenic and bromate.

More importantly, Milbank misses the major shortcomings in FDA‚ regulation of bottled water, revealed at the hearing. Democratic Delegate Christian E. Christiansen, a physician by training, pointedly highlighted that FDA does not have the statutory authority to require bottling companies to use certified laboratories or to report test results to FDA, even if test results could endanger health.  As we learned earlier this year from the Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that killed 9 people and sickened over 700, it is possible for companies to conceal positive bacteria findings from the FDA. Only after FDA officials went into the Peanut Corporation of America‚ plant did they discover that in fact the company had been testing its product and had found tests that contained high levels of the bacteria. What‚ to stop that same regulatory failure from occurring within the bottled water industry?

Though FDA may apply standards similar to the ones EPA uses for contaminants in municipal drinking water, the reporting protocols are very different, and that is what ultimately protects public health. Food safety legislation currently moving through Congress could give FDA the authority to make bottled water companies report test results, allow more FDA inspections and require that those inspections take place in a certified lab—all much-needed consumer protections.

The great irony is that while Congress has failed to grant FDA the authority needed to ensure that bottled water is safe for consumers, they have simultaneously cut back federal funding for municipal drinking water systems. Today, federal funding provides less than 5 percent of what‚ needed to ensure that our drinking water systems are maintained and updated. Instead of caring for the pipes and treatments systems we have invested in for over a century, Representative Burgess and other members of Congress, reluctant to trust tap water, now pay 1900 times more for water served in a plastic bottle. Instead, they should support Blumenauer‚ upcoming Clean Water Trust Fund legislation that would provide a dedicated source of funding for our water and sewer systems to ensure our drinking water is safe and affordable.

Food & Water Watch and our supporters across the country commend Stupak for holding this important hearing. Stay tuned for ways you can help ensure that the new food safety legislation and the Clean Water Trust Fund are passed by Congress and enacted into law.

-Emily Wurth

One Comment on Milbank Misses the Mark on Bottled Water

  1. Nicole Paluszek says:

    People, please can we finally stop pretending that the FDA exists to protect consumers and that the government has any rightful authority whatsoever in these matters?

    If people want to buy bottled water, let them buy bottled water. If perchance it makes them sick, they’ll think twice before buying it again. By all means keep up the good work educating consumers about what constitutes good drinking water, but don’t jump on all these banning bandwagons – people have a right to put into their bodies whatever they want to and refuse to put into their bodies whatever they don’t want to. Please stay out of the violent coercive business of minding other people’s business. Again, providing information to consumers is great. Let’s keep it that way.

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