Opinion: Is bottled water really safer?

Published: 4/17/2022 10:01:32 AM
Modified: 4/17/2022 10:00:14 AM

Mindi Messmer, PG, CG, MS is an environmental and public health scientist and author of Female Disruptors out in May 2022.

Sometimes you aren’t around long enough to see that a failure was just the first step in a process. I’m happy to say that is not the case in the story I share with you today.

For example, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was one of the first women to graduate with a medical degree from my alma mater, Syracuse University. However, she was denied a position as a physician in the Union Army because she was a woman. Instead, she volunteered rather than accept a lesser position.

She became the first and only woman ever to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for her service, but the medal was rescinded because she was never officially commissioned as an officer. Fifty-eight years later, after her death, President Jimmy Carter restored her honor.

As a state representative in 2017, I was concerned about widespread contaminated drinking water due to Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Merrimack and the U.S. Air Force and others in the seacoast area of New Hampshire. I started to think about how people turn to bottled water when they are worried their tap water is unsafe or when they are out and about.

I realized that the safety of bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and those regulations are not as strict as some state regulations. For example, the level of arsenic allowed in drinking water in N.J. (5 parts per billion, ppb) was much safer. 

The FDA’s bottled water allowable limit and New Hampshire’s drinking water allowable limit were twice that at the time. Bladder cancer can result from exposure to arsenic and the incidence rate of bladder cancer in New Hampshire was 10 times higher than in N.J. Incidentally, I sponsored HB 1592 which resulted in a lower allowable limit for arsenic in New Hampshire drinking water to match N.J. at 5 ppb.

Shouldn’t the water that you drink from a bottle be as safe as the water that comes out of your tap? Of course, it should be.

In 2017, I sponsored HB 1632 which would require companies selling bottled water in New Hampshire to comply with New Hampshire regulations. But HB 1632 was the target of heavy lobbying pushback from the International Bottled Water Association, Pepsi, and other well-funded companies. The Commerce Committee recommended the bill be killed (inexpedient to legislate).

In March of 2018, two other state representatives and I took the bill to a floor fight, but the bill failed. Although the state agency did not support the bill in committee testimony, they quietly sampled bottled water sold on the shelf in New Hamsphire stores. The results showed that per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals or “PFAS” in some bottled water exceeded the EPA Advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Once the results were made public, the company stopped selling bottled water.

In the next few years, two more legislative attempts were made to compel bottled water companies to comply with state drinking water regulations. Both failed.

In September of 2020, Consumer Reports said they found arsenic and PFAS in sparking and the non-sparkling bottled water they tested. June of 2021, a Johns Hopkins study found PFAS chemicals in 39 out of 100 brands of bottled water tested.

Thankfully, in the meantime, the state health and human services agency revised the state regulations through rulemaking, to compel bottled water companies to comply with state regulations where FDA regulations do not exist. Those changes went into effect in late October 2021. But the rules indicate where FDA levels exist, they supersede.

For arsenic, the FDA limit which is less stringent for arsenic (10 ppb), supersedes New Hampshire’s drinking water limit of 5 ppb.

Now, bottled water is nearly as regulated as your tap water in New Hampshire. I’m so grateful that his important issue has been addressed in New Hampshire and now when you buy a bottle of water you can expect that the levels of PFAS chemicals are below New Hampshire state regulations. Hopefully, it will serve as a roadmap for other states, in the absence of federal regulation.

I’m so grateful for the work of my legislative colleagues, Rep. Renny Cushing and Rep. Chuck Grassie, who hung in there with me on this important issue.

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