More Hot Air at Bottled Water Hearings

Dana Milbank has a great piece in the Washington Post this week about recent congressional hearings on bottled water. He notes: “The nation is entangled in two wars, a deep recession and a flu pandemic, and the people’s representatives are hard at work investigating the menace of . . . bottled water?” Indeed. This is a silly issue for them to focus on, but unfortunately, their regulations may increase prices of a low-calorie, healthy beverage option.

The same day of the hearings, the congressional research arm, U.S. Government Accountability Office, also released a conveniently-timed, allegedly independent report on the topic, which buttresses lawmakers’ concerns. What a “surprise!”

The GAO report recommends increased labeling on bottled water indicating what trace elements it might hold in the parts per billion range. But GAO’s recommendation is a policy judgment. It is not a supported for data showing that bottled water poses significant risks under current regulatory practices or that more bureaucratic reporting of data would improve water quality. The study did not even assess bottled water’s safety. Instead it compared EPA regulations of tap water to FDA regulations of bottled water, which it found to be basically the same, except that FDA also applies food safety and packaging regulations. It suggested that FDA implementation was weaker than EPA, but it did not assess performance–the quality of bottled water verses tap.

Lawmakers used GAO value judgments to suggest that bottled water was no different than tap water, and that it might even be less safe. As well documented on and in my study, the facts do not support that contention. In terms of safety, both tap and bottled water are generally good, yet available data indicates that bottled water has a better safety record. If you compare health-related problems that have been connected to both bottled and tap water, tap water has more documented health-related incidents by factors in the tens of thousands. For details on the health and safety records, see here. For details on the regulations, see here.

As a result, not only won’t government-mandated information about trace level contaminants make water safer, it won’t educate consumers on the risks. These contaminants exist at such low levels that they pose negligible risks, which is why FDA does not fuss over them. The regulations will increase paperwork, bureaucracy, and waste money. But then Washington specializes in those things.