Bottled Fear Peddled by the NRDC

By Michael Fumento

April 3, 1999
Copyright 1999 Michael Fumento

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Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

That’s not exactly the conclusion of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report on the nation’s bottled water. But the group did make it sound like much of it is pretty nasty, teeming with bacteria and chemicals. Fortunately, the NRDC’s conclusion was as fictitious as Coleridge’s poem.

After taking over 1,000 samples of 103 brands of bottled water, the NRDC found that "approximately one third of the tested waters (34 of 103 waters) violated an enforceable state standard" or exceeded some federal or California guidelines "in at least one sample."

Why California? Because it has the strictest standards in the nation.

The NRDC’s answer to this horrific problem happened to be its answer to all alleged problems it identifies more costly and more strictly enforced regulations.

But before you pour your Evian down the drain, here’s a few things you should know.

"I was very disappointed" by the NRDC, says Stephen Edberg, a professor of laboratory and internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine who has sat on most of the EPA panels that regulate drinking water.

Having examined the report closely, he told me, "it has very little substance".

Edberg was dismayed at the NRDC’s claim that while, "most bottled water appears to be safe" some "products may pose a health risk, primarily for people with weakened immune systems (such as the frail elderly, some infants, transplant and cancer patients, or people with HIV/AIDS)."

"It’s completely fallacious," he told me. "There’s absolutely no risk to the population. This is extremely alarmist and has great detrimental effect."

Much of the NRDC report, and over half the numerous articles and broadcasts about it, harped on bacteria. "Some brands of bottled water sold in the U.S. may contain bacteria," began Reuters’ story.

The reporter, identified as a medical doctor, seemed unaware that many bacterial strains are harmless to us while others humans need to live.

With few exceptions, it’s those strains the NRDC found.

Two brands of water were found to contain the bacteria coliform, which can be serious business in a high enough level if it’s from feces. Yet the NRDC report admitted its tests found "no fecal coliform bacteria or E. coli bacteria" in ANY samples.

"I thought it particularly distasteful that the NRDC made an issue of bacteria in water," said Edberg. "We in the medical community know [the type they found] has no virulence for human beings. The NRDC should know this. I thought they did a terrible disservice."

By the standards they set, "The NRDC should say milk should not be sold," said Edberg. And forget about yogurt.

Ah, but what about those chemicals they found?

Well, for the most part they didn’t find any. Still, as detection methods improve, we’ll eventually be able to find a single molecule of anything in Lake Superior. Already, testing is so sensitive that incredibly tiny levels of chemicals are detectable, so it’s hardly surprising that the NRDC did find some chemicals in some samples, like naturally-occurring arsenic, that could be harmful if ingested in massive amounts.

Yet "the levels of synthetic organic chemicals and inorganic chemicals of concern for which we tested were either below detection limits or well below all applicable standards," the report admitted.

Besides its failure to find the bottled bogeyman, what really upset the NRDC was that FDA regulations don’t cover all types of bottled water and even when they do, "those rules are weaker in many ways than EPA rules that apply to big city tap water."

But it makes sense to have much more stringent regulations on tap water, because that comes from a monopoly. Municipalities have no market incentives to keep to keep their water completely safe.

Not so with incredibly competitive bottled water industry. Perrier discovered this the hard way when the FDA found traces of the benzine, a probable human carcinogen, in their bottles of mineral water nine years ago. The company felt compelled to voluntarily recall over 140 million bottles at a cost of about $40 million. Could any set of regulations have more "teeth" than that?

But the bottom line is this: Is our bottled water safe?

The NRDC took over 1,000 samples. But each day, Americans "sample" bottled water tens of millions of times, namely by drinking it. "For the past 37 years," according to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), "there have been no confirmed reports in the US of illness or diseases linked to bottled water."

"Foul!" cried the NRDC. They’ve located bottled-water disease outbreaks in the medical literature, they say.

How many? Two.

Where? One in the Marianas Islands, and one in Portugal.

Point, game, and match to the IBWA.

All the NRDC report really proved is that there is absolutely nothing environmental activist can’t turn into a crisis requiring more federal regulations and encouraging more financial support for "watchdogs" such as themselves.

Let’s open a bottle of water and drink to the day when they’ve lost so much credibility that it will never happen again.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on health scares.