Lawsuits expected to follow bottled water study

Legal News Line Oct. 16, 2008, 12:56pm

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-Laboratory tests of popular brands of bottled water will result in at least one California lawsuit against retail giant Wal-Mart, according to the non-profit organization that conducted the study.

The study, released on Tuesday, found 10 U.S. bottled water brands contain mixtures of 38 different pollutants, including bacteria, fertilizer, Tylenol and industrial chemicals, according to an executive summary issued by the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C.

The study asserts that Wal-Mart's label brand, Sam's Choice, fails to meet California's legal limits for bottled water contaminants.

The environmental group filed a notice of intent to sue Wal-Mart on Tuesday, alleging that the mega-chain failed to warn the public of illegal concentrations of trihalomethanes, which are cancer-causing chemicals.

Abraham Arredondo, a spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed with Legal Newsline that they had received the letter from the Environmental Working Group and were taking it under advisement. He could not comment on the attorney general's interest in the case at this point, he said.

The study found that all brands met federal health standards, even though they fell short of the voluntary standards established by the bottled water industry. California's standards exceed federal standards for water purity.

The Environmental Working Group sent a letter to California Attorney General Jerry Brown notifying him of the study and its implications for California. Brown has been a vocal critic of the bottled water industry.

This summer the threat of a lawsuit from the attorney general's office blocked a plan by Nestle, the nation's largest manufacturer of bottled water, for construction of a plant that would draw millions of gallons of water from the pristine McCloud River in Northern California. Nestle has since agreed to rework its construction and plan, lower levels of production and make further environmental concessions.

In an earlier interview Brown told Legal Newsline that Americans need to rethink their allegiance to bottled water.

"We take our pristine waters and cart them off to Maine or someplace," Brown said. "It's like carrying coal to New Castle, or ice to Alaska. It represents a level of waste that, at least, ought to be acknowledged. Hopefully, consumers will find more efficient ways to hydrate."

Officials from the Environmental Working Group said the bottled water industry has convinced consumers its product is superior, contrary to these study results.

"It's buyer beware with bottle water," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at EWG. "The bottled water industry promotes its products as pure and healthy, but our tests show that pollutants in some popular brands match the levels found in some of the nation's most polluted big city tap water systems. Consumers can't trust that what's in the bottle is anything more than processed, pricey tap water."

More than 25 percent of all bottled water comes from the same sources as tap water, municipal water supplies. Sam's Choice of Wal-Mart comes from Las Vegas' municipal supply.

Unlike tap water, where consumers are provided with test results every year, the bottled water industry does not disclose the results of any contaminant testing that it conducts.

"The industry is spending millions, millions, on these advertising campaigning to get people think that bottled water is better than tap water." Executive Director Richard Wiles said.

Though the study did not focus on the cost and environmental impact of the bottled water industry, the group's recommendations focus on a change of mindset for consumers.

The average cost per gallon of bottled water, "$3.79 per gallon, is 1,900 times the cost of public tap water. A carbon filter at the tap or in a pitcher costs a manageable $0.31 per gallon," the EWG report states. "Consumers should drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water."

The environmental impact is also a concern, according to the report. Water bottle production in the U.S. uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per every year, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors' resolution passed in 2007, enough energy to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. Roughly one in four bottles of the 36 billion sold each year is properly recycled, according to a 2007 study.

The study's recommendations call for "full disclosure of all test results for all contaminants," in bottled water, and made readily available to the public.

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