Published on
The San Francisco Chronicle

Some Bottled Water Toxicity Shown To Exceed Law

Jane Kay

Sam's Choice's chemical levels were found to exceed legal limits in California and voluntary standards adopted by the industry. (Kurt Rogers / The Chronicle)

Bottled water brands do not always maintain
the consistency of quality touted in ads featuring alpine peaks and
crystalline lakes and, in some cases, contain toxic byproducts that
exceed state safety standards, tests show.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization with
offices in Oakland, tested 10 brands of bottled water and found that
Wal-Mart's Sam's Choice contained chemical levels that exceeded legal
limits in California and the voluntary standards adopted by the

The tests discovered an average of eight contaminants in each brand.
Four brands besides Wal-Mart's also were contaminated with bacteria.

The environmental group filed a notice of intent to sue Wal-Mart
Tuesday, alleging that the mega-chain failed to warn the public of
illegal concentrations of trihalomethanes, which are cancer-causing

"The investigation has uncovered that consumers cannot be assured of
the quality of their bottled water," said Olga Naidenko, a toxicologist
at the Environmental Working Group and lead author of the bottled-water

"Our study was a snapshot of the marketplace. We found some brands
that provided good quality and other brands that contained various
chemical pollutants. What this shows is that consumers cannot have
confidence. They don't know what they're getting," she said.

The group also singled out Giant Supermarket's brand Acadia for
excessive levels of disinfection byproducts, but it didn't sue because
the Mid-Atlantic chain's water isn't sold in California.

Some of the Sam's Choice bottled water purchased from Wal-Marts in
Mountain View and Oakland came from Las Vegas Valley Water District's
sometimes-chlorinated public water supply, the group found.

Wal-Mart responds

Shannon Frederick, senior communications manager at Wal-Mart's
corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., said the corporation
stands by its product. Wal-Mart owns 4,200 stores in the United States.

"Both our suppliers' tests and tests from an additional external
laboratory are not showing any reportable amounts of chlorine or
chlorine byproducts. We're disappointed that the EWG has not shared
more details with us as we continue to investigate this matter,"
Frederick said.

"We're puzzled by the EWG's findings."

The Las Vegas water supply meets federal standards for toxic
chemicals that form when disinfectants such as chlorine react with
organic matter, sometimes in reservoirs. The federal standard is 80
parts per billion. But in California, the byproducts standard in
bottled water is eight times as strict, possibly making Wal-Mart liable
for action under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic
Enforcement Act of 1986. In 1995, after animal tests showed that the
byproducts could cause cancer and reproductive damage in lab animals,
California added the bottled water provisions to the health and safety
code, setting a standard at 10 parts per billion.

The Food and Drug Administration requires bottled water to meet the
same standards as tap water from public systems - which is 80 ppb. The
FDA doesn't require bottled water companies to inform consumers of the
source and presence of contaminants. Yet by law, public water companies
must send customers annual information about sources and the presence
of contaminants such as trihalomethanes, arsenic, nitrates and fluoride
in the water supply.

Study findings

In the Environmental Working Group study, the University of Iowa
Hygienic Laboratory screened for 170 possible contaminants. The lab
found 38 pollutants in 24 samples from 10 major brands purchased by the
group in California, Washington, D.C., and eight other states.

The environmental group won't release the names of eight other
brands it tested, saying it would do so only after it conducts
more-extensive testing.

Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Valley Water District,
said he had no knowledge that Wal-Mart was using Las Vegas's water
supply for bottling.

After some checking, he said a local water-bottling company that sells to the Strip could be supplying Wal-Mart as well.

Some findings from the study:

-- Three samples of Sam's Choice bought in Oakland, Mountain View
and Fayetteville, N.C., contained levels of total trihalomethanes
between 14 ppb and 37 ppb, exceeding the state and industry standard of
10 ppb.

-- One of the byproducts, bromodichloromethane, also a carcinogen,
is even more toxic to lab animals and is more strictly controlled. The
state's cancer safety standard is 2.5 ppb. Three bottles of Sam's
Choice purchased in Mountain View and Oakland contained the contaminant
at levels from 7.7 ppb and 13 ppb.

-- Also present in bottled water were caffeine and the
pharmaceutical Tylenol, as well as arsenic, radioactive isotopes,
nitrates and ammonia from fertilizer residue. Industrial chemicals used
as solvents, degreasing agents and propellants were also found in the

-- Trace amounts of synthetic chemicals or degradation products from
the manufacture of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, plastic bottles
were found, including acetaldehyde, isobutane and toluene. At those low
levels, scientists can't ascertain the health effects.

Bottled vs. tap

Americans drank more than 9 billion gallons in 2007, and fewer than
half of 228 brands of bottled water reveal their source. Typical cost
is $3.79 per gallon, 1,900 times the cost of public tap water. Green
campaigns have focused on steering away from bottled water because
manufacturing, transporting and sending unrecycled bottles to the
landfill use natural resources and create an environmental burden.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in June 2007 barring use of city funds to purchase bottled water.

"The primary reason is that it can cost a thousand times more, and
you're not even getting better quality water," said Tony Winnicker,
spokesman for the city Public Utilities Commission.

"There have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent to market the
myth that bottled water is purer and safer than the tap water. The
study is further evidence that the myth is often a lie."

Guide to safe drinking water

Filters: Drink
filtered tap water instead of bottled water. Use carbon filters,
pitcher or tap-mounted. They reduce lead and disinfection byproducts.
Install a reverse osmosis filter if you can afford it.

Containers: Carry water in stainless steel containers.

Research: Learn what's in your tap water. Suppliers publish water-quality tests.

Find the full report on bottled water quality by the Environmental Working Group at



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