Some Bottled Water Isn't Better, States Fear
By Colin Quinn, Special to Stateline
Americans' growing thirst for bottled water is leading a handful of states, most recently joined by Illinois, to push ahead of the federal government in regulating the purity of purchased H2O.
A new Illinois law, which starting next year will require the annual inspection of bottled-water plants and water sample tests, was proposed after constituents of State Sen. Susan Garrett (D), including her children, expressed suspicion over the variety of bottled water on store shelves.
"We started asking: Could someone just put water in a bottle and put a fancy label on it and sell it in Illinois?'" Garrett told Stateline.org. "And the answer was, Yes.'"
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for monitoring bottled-water plants. But Garrett says that because the FDA is so understaffed, businesses are inspected only every five to seven years. In addition, the majority of bottled water is packaged and sold within a state, putting those products outside of the FDA's regulatory authority, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has studied bottled water regulation.
"Bottled water is technically covered at the federal level," said Satya Rhodes, policy associate for the State Environmental Resource Center, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Madison, Wisconsin. "But in practice, ... it's effectively unregulated at the federal level."
Besides Illinois, California requires water samples from bottled-water plants every six months and licenses manufacturers. Michigan and New York also license bottled-water plants. In Kentucky, water-bottling facilities must meet the same requirements as public drinking water systems.
Maine, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont have regulations stricter than the FDA's, according to a 1997 report by NRDC, the environmental group.
More than half of Americans drink bottled water, more than a third drink it regularly, and almost half of consumers say they feel it is healthier than tap water, according to the NRDC report. The study provides the most recent look at state regulatory measures.
Government and industry estimates say that 25 to 30 percent of bottled water in the United States comes from municipal tap water, according to the NRDC report.
The NRDC reports, however, that federal standards for bottled water actually are lower than those for city tap water, which is monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The International Bottled Water Association, which includes all the major brands except Dasani and Aquafina, also regulates the industry, said the association's manager of communications, Bridget Wells. Membership in the group requires plants to submit to an annual, unannounced inspection.
Currently, Illinois doesn't even know how many bottled-water manufacturers operate in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Public Health estimates the number at 40, said spokeswoman Tammy Leonard.
The new Bottled Water Safety Act, which was signed Aug. 5 by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and takes effect Jan. 1, 2005, requires bottlers to obtain $150 permits to operate in Illinois and will allow the state Department of Public Health to inspect water-bottling facilities annually. Bottled-water manufacturers in Illinois are required to test their products internally and make the results available to the state, Leonard said.
The new law will allow the state to know precisely how many manufacturers operate in the state. "That gives us the ability to contact them in case of a recall or contamination," Leonard said.
Plants that do not meet health or safety standards could face fines of up to $1,000, Leonard said. Out-of-state bottlers selling water in Illinois also will need a permit to distribute their water in the state.
"It clearly will prevent the ability for somebody to just put together a bottled water company by buying plastic bottles, putting tap water in [them] and putting on a decorative label," Garrett, the legislation's sponsor, said.
The most difficult part of passing the legislation was coordinating with Illinois' water bottlers, she said. During hearings, company officials wanted to ensure the fees were not exorbitant and the government wasn't breathing down their necks, Garrett said.
Gary McNeil, owner of D'Angelo Natural Spring Water in East Dundee, Ill., said the legislation would stop entrepreneurs who may have jumped into the industry just to make a quick buck. But he said he doesn't relish having to pay another fee on top of food licenses he has to renew annually for several municipalities.