Excerpts from long article that details several incidents of contaminated bottled drinking water
… FDA inspections of bottled water facilities, though, declined by 33 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to data provided by the agency, and several years can pass between visits—meaning, as with Sweet Springs, the FDA might not become aware of contamination until long after it happened. Even when tests show contamination, in most cases manufacturers don’t have to stop bottling or alert the public—for instance, by issuing a press release.
Instead, before tests are reviewed by government inspectors, the FDA’s only apparent mechanism for alerting consumers is by requiring bottlers to put a statement of substandard quality on the label—saying, for example, “Contains Excessive Arsenic.” It’s illegal to sell contaminated products that lack this kind of labeling. But, perhaps for obvious reasons, the FDA could not point to a single example of a company ever complying…
Similarly, in June 2018, the FDA found tests by DS Services of America suggested that the company produced bottled water products a month before with fluoride levels possibly up to 26 times the legal limit. While some fluoride in the water is considered a good thing because of its cavity-fighting properties, too much can actually damage teeth and bones.
The DS Services water with high levels of fluoride was shipped “without further evaluation,” according to FDA records. Turney said that the FDA couldn’t determine whether the high results were accurate and that there was not enough evidence to support a recall, but no samples were taken for further analysis by the FDA inspector during the inspection. The company, she added, later fired its quality assurance manager and retrained workers. Cynthia Millane, a spokesperson for DS Services, attributed the issue to a “record-keeping error” and claims that a company technician had “inadvertently recorded the wrong fluoride reading.” (Regarding the quality assurance manager, she said the company can’t comment on personnel matters.)
“This record-keeping error did not trigger a product recall, as this was not a public health safety issue,” she said. “We took corrective actions, including technician retraining and implementation of an electronic record-keeping system for results conducted by the technician.”
CR’s Hansen said the FDA should always take a sample as a follow-up to inspections that reveal test results showing contamination. If the agency finds contaminated water, he said, “it should require a recall of all water produced from the date of the initial violation until the problem is fixed.”
Even when the FDA decides to push a company for a recall, removing products from the market can take weeks or longer.
For example, last April CR tested Peñafiel Mineral Spring Water, owned by Keurig Dr Pepper, and found levels of arsenic above the FDA limit. We immediately shared the results with the company and the FDA. Keurig paused production for two weeks while it investigated the issue. But the FDA waited several weeks before conducting its own tests, according to emails obtained through a FOIA request.
The FDA’s tests came back June 6, emails show, with arsenic levels similar to what CR found. But the agency didn’t tell Keurig that it believed the product should be recalled until June 14. Even then, it waited to inform the public, preferring to let the company speak first. “Obviously, if the firm issues press then that’s the ideal situation,” said one email, sent June 19.
A final decision to pull the product from stores wasn’t made until June 21, when Keurig announced a voluntary withdrawal in a press release. The FDA eventually classified the move as a recall, covering nearly 750,000 bottles of water. Keurig is facing an ongoing class-action lawsuit about the arsenic contamination.
What You Can Do
Bottled water makers often don’t make it easy to determine the quality of bottled water, CR has previously reported.
While some companies voluntarily publish their test results or make them available to consumers on request, manufacturers aren’t required to make their test results public. And there is no central repository for reports. The International Bottled Water Association says if a company doesn’t provide test results voluntarily, consumers should purchase a different bottled water product. (Here are the reports CR has gathered so far in our investigation.)
“If you’re going to buy bottled water, I think it’s caveat emptor, buyer beware,” said the NRDC’s Olson. “There are a lot of bottled waters out there that may not be very high-quality.”
Consumers can also ask their water utility for a report on the quality of their tap water. If you’re concerned about tap water quality, a number of filters remove toxic substances, such as lead. (See CR’s water filter ratings and ream more about how to test your tap water.) State or local health departments might also offer free water test kits.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2019, Consumer Reports, Inc.