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Letting the Genie out of the Bottle (of Water)

17.dec.02, Rhonda Crowe and Ben Chapman, Commentary by the Food Safety Network

Last week it was announced that a study into the effects of the Walkerton E. coli O157 outbreak have found little data that points to any long-term heath problems for the majority of the more than 2,000 who fell ill 2 years ago. The results of the outbreak have been much more far-reaching than just the individuals who became ill; the stigma of water safety that was borne out of Walkerton has contributed to ongoing questions about the safety of municipal water and may have steered even more consumers towards bottled water.
The bottled water market has become the fastest growing trend in the Canadian beverage industry, with consumption increasing by approximately 10 per cent per year. Consumption rates in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America are even higher. Comparing the cost of bottled water to a municipal glass of H2O is like paying a thousand dollars for a Tim Horton's double-double when you have a Melita coffee machine at home. A stoned Janeane Garofalo in the slacker movie, Reality Bites, enlightened viewers with her revelation that Evian was just naïve spelled backwards; is the irony lost on Canadians ? In some cases, bottled water is nothing more than tap water filtered to remove unpleasant tastes and odours, one of the most common being chlorine.
Current Canadian labeling laws require that the terms 'spring' and 'mineral' only be used if the water comes from a groundwater well source rather than a surface water source such as a lake, stream or from the municipal water supply. But does this make the bottled water any different as two-thirds of municipal water sources in Ontario are also from groundwater? Municipal water supplies are legislated under the Ontario Water Resources Act, which the Ministry of the Environment is responsible for administering. It is the responsibility of each municipality to ensure that water of adequate quality is delivered to the consumer.
There is no evidence pointing to bottled water being safer than municipal water supplies - bottled water still experiences recalls due to contaminants. Unless you are buying sterilized water (usually reserved for doctors and pharmacists) your bottled water could contain potentiallyharmful microbes that can multiply after the bottle has been opened. The proper storage of bottled water (a cool, dark place such as a refrigerator) is necessary to prevent these critters from reaching hazardous levels.
In Canada, bottled water is considered to be a food product and is regulated through the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. This places the bottled water companies under the inspection umbrella of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. While the sale of bottled water is not licensed, it is subject to government inspection with CFIA inspectors visiting bottling plants every 12 to 18 months to examine the results of regular tests for bacteria and other contaminants. Imported products are also regularly inspected to ensure their safety. Some provincial and municipal agencies also conduct surveillance of bottled waters. However, the responsibility lies with manufacturers, as it should be, and not the government, to make sure that the necessary microbial tests are regularly conducted.
The Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA) was founded in 1992 to ensure a standard of quality for bottled water. Members of the association must pass an annual, unannounced plant inspection administered by an independent, internationally recognized organization. Members must also regularly conduct microbial testing by qualified personnel and pass an annual water analysis administered by an independent government certified laboratory. The CBWA claims that their model code is a quality assurance program with more extensive requirements than federal and provincial authorities, though membership in the CBWA and compliance with all of its conditions remain voluntary. 85% of the water bottlers in Ontario belong to the Canadian Bottled Water Association, however it is not indicated on labels of products whether the bottler belongs to CBWA.
Health Canada is currently updating the standards for bottled water because the standards ­ which date back to 1973 - do not take into account the new information that has been discovered on the impact of chemicals and contaminants on human health.
By charging one thousand times more than municipalities, the bottled water industry can afford to use the latest in filtration and purification for their products whereas municipalities rely on the cheap, but nonetheless effective, option of chlorine. The presence and taste of residual chlorine is a stated reason for turning to bottled water. The lack of taste in the bottled variety is reassuring to many people. Every municipality has different tasting water factors include chlorine treatment and the type of piping systems in the municipality. The taste of tap water can even vary from building to building depending on the age and condition of the pipes in use. Bottled water on the other hand, has the fast-food appeal of every product tasting the same, regardless of the town in which it was purchased.
The reuse of the purchased water bottle is common practice in Canada as well. This is an environmentally friendly option, but if you are among the many who reuse their bottle without properly washing it, your days as a budding environmentalist may be numbered. A recent study tracked elementary school students where water bottles were employed to reduce water fountain trips; results showed that 65 per cent of the samples taken from the water bottles did not meet the standards for acceptable drinking water because they contained high levels of heterotrophic bacteria, capable of causing gastrointestinal illness and pneumonia , and which thrive in water sitting at room temperature for an extended length of time. Over 9% of the water samples were also found to be contaminated with fecal coliform. The fecal coliform contamination was thought to be a result of poor personal hygiene in the children because samples taken from the water sources in the school were not contaminated. If you feel the need to keep that same water bottle in circulation for week after week, remember to add the word 'wash' before the reuse when you think 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.'
The consumption of bottled water is a quality, not a safety, issue, and consumers should be aware. Individuals may choose whether or not to favor bottled over treated munincipal water, but it is misleading to treat bottled water as a sure thing when it comes to safety; the Walkerton of bottled water has not occurred, but it doesn¹t mean it never will. Industry must work to further enhance safety. And bottled water is no different from any other foods; store it properly and remember that the water -- and the bottle -- have a shelf-life.

Rhonda Crowe and Ben Chapman are researchers with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph
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