Most Bottled Water Brands Don’t Disclose Information About Source, Purity and Contaminants

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC-- An Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation of almost 200 popular bottled water brands found less than 2 percent disclose the water’s source, how the water has been purified and what chemical pollutants each bottle of water may contain. Just 2 of the 188 individual brands EWG analyzed disclosed those three basic facts about their water.

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Jane Houlihan, EWG Senior Vice President for Research, discussed the findings of the 18-month long study in testimony today before a congressional oversight hearing on the gaps in government regulation of the bottled water industry.

Some of the more interesting discoveries were that mainstream brands such as Sam’s Club and Walgreen’s scored relatively high marks, while waters marketed as elite, including Perrier, S. Pellegrino and the Whole Foods store brand, flunked because they provided almost no meaningful information for consumers.

Why the glaring lack of disclosure? Houlihan said that bottled water companies enjoy a regulatory holiday under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which give beverage corporations complete latitude to choose what, if any, information about their water they divulge to customers.

In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- the federal agency that oversees the nation’s municipal water utilities -- requires all 52,000 community tap water suppliers nationwide to produce an annual water quality report: The utilities’ reports detail water source and pollutant testing results for customers, as required under the Safe Drinking Water Act. An estimated 58 percent of these reports also describe water treatment methods.

“Many people assume bottled water is healthier and safer to drink than ordinary tap water. But some companies have lured consumers away from the tap with claims of health and purity that aren’t backed by public data,” Houlihan said. “The ugly truth is that under lax federal law, consumers know very little about the quality of bottled water on which they spend billions every year.”

“The Bottled water industry's strategy has been to market bottled water as the safe and clean alternative to tap water,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the non-profit consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. “This myth has been used to trick consumers into paying thousands times more for a product that is the same or even more polluted than the water available from our faucets. Tap water in the United States undergoes rigorous testing for contaminants—as often as 480 times a month, far more than the once–a–week test for bottled water.”


EWG researchers analyzed labels and websites from 188 bottled waters to learn which bottlers voluntarily disclosed the same information as required of community water suppliers. EWG found that many disclose little to no information at all on water source and purity.

EWG compared 2008 and 2009 labels and websites to learn how many brands are telling customers more this year than last. The answer was a heartening 52 percent, though in nearly every case water bottlers provided less information than municipal water utilities.

“Members of Congress need to understand that it has taken major public outcry, followed by proactive legislation, to provoke much of these changes,” said Kelle Louaillier, executive director for Corporate Accountability International, an organization that has compelled both Pepsi and Nestlé to label the source of their bottled water. “Starting today, Congress can work to guarantee the consumer’s right to know what exactly they are getting in these disposable plastic water bottles.”

Few water sources are completely free of detectable contaminants. The 40 percent of bottled water brands that rely on tap water are drawing from supplies that collectively contain at least 260 pollutants, according to EWG's 2002-2005 survey of tap water testing conducted by community water supplies.

Last year EWG commissioned bottled water quality tests that found that the water is not necessarily any safer than ordinary tap water. The lab tests of 10 major brands identified 38 pollutants, ranging from fertilizer residue to industrial solvents. Pollutants in 2 brands exceeded some state and industry health standards.

Legislation is underway to close loopholes in nationwide bottled water standards. A California law effective January 1, 2009, requires bottled water companies to post information on the water source, treatment and testing on labels and websites. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last year would require similar strictures at the federal level.


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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