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Archive for Wednesday, January 4, 1995

TAP OR BOTTLED? WATER BATTLE BOILS

January 4, 1995

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Just because it comes in a bottle doesn't mean it's safer than what comes out of the tap.

Lisa Prats contends that drinking bottled water isn't trendy anymore.

"It's actually an established beverage," said Prats, vice president of the International Bottled Water Assn. in Alexandria, Va. "It's being consumed as a beverage in its own right."

Trendy or not, most people drink bottled water -- more than 2 billion gallons were sold in 1992 -- because it tastes better and they think it's healthier than tap water. But in Kansas, tap water must comply with much more stringent standards than bottled drinking water.

"People do tout bottled water as somewhat safer (than tap water)," said Greg Crawford of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. ``In some instances it may not be any safer. They can open the tap, put it in a bottle and call it bottled water."

Unlike water that comes from the tap, bottled water is regulated as a food. In Kansas, KDHE and the federal Food and Drug Administration oversee bottled water. An FDA official in Lenexa said overseeing bottled drinking water is "a very small drop in the bucket," compared with other work the agency must handle.

Because of the recent proliferation in bottled water products, Crawford said, KDHE scientists recently started testing about 80 of the products offered in the state to determine their safety. The results aren't in yet.

"I think my concern is that people make sure that they know why they're buying bottled water," said Morgan Powell, a natural resource engineer for the Cooperative Extension Service at Kansas State University.

Legitimate reasons, in Powell's view, are because your water has high sodium or nitrate levels, or it tastes or smells bad.

"They should not assume that bottled water is any more safe than what comes out of their tap," Powell said. ``... Most bottled water starts with the public water supply. They put it through some treatment to remove some things. Then they often add back some food-grade chemicals to make it taste better. Then they treat it with ozone to kill bacteria."

Is bottled water likely to be less safe than tap water?

"There's a lot of controversy about that," Powell said. ``... It comes in a bottle, and we trust those things that come in a bottle. Most bottled-water locations -- and I've been at the plants -- hire some low-paid, minimum-wage guy who's had very little or no training to fill the bottles and so on. Compare that with a public water supply that has a trained operator."

Prats said companies that belong to her water association follow regulations that are stricter than state and FDA standards and the companies submit to annual surprise plant inspections.

That's not enough for Shari Stamer, lab services supervisor for Lawrence's water department, which performs numerous tests daily on the water supply.

"If I bought bottled water, I'd be wondering where that came from," she said.

The increased interest in bottled drinking water prompted the FDA to enact some new standards, according to W. Michael Rogers, FDA director for the four-state district that includes Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

"Unfortunately, some of the marketing for bottled water promotes that product as though it were more healthy," Rogers said. "From our vantage point, municipal water is, in many cases, just as good, if not better, than some of the water that is bottled. I think that is definitely true here in the Midwest."

Because the FDA is responsible for the regulation of 25 cents of every dollar that consumers spend, bottled water has attracted little of the agency's attention.

"I don't purchase it," Rogers said. "If asked for my personal opinion, I'd use the water that's provided through the municipal water system."

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