Bottled Water & Flint

The members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) continue to respond to the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead has contaminated the public water supply for more than 100,000 families, as well schools and businesses.

 

IBWA member companies are donating millions of bottles of bottled water. Bottlers are working in coordination with state, county, and municipal emergency management agencies and emergency relief partners like Convoy of Hope. Member companies are also coordinating donations to Flint Public Schools through the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and directly with the City of Flint.

There are many questions about the issue of lead in drinking water and it is very important to understand the regulations designed to protect people from lead exposure through water. While regulations exist for both bottled water and water from public water systems, the regulations are different.

Is bottled water regulated?

  • Yes. Bottled water is comprehensively regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a packaged food product and it provides a consistently safe and reliable source of drinking water. And, by federal law, the FDA regulations governing the safety and quality of bottled water must be at least as stringent as the EPA regulations that govern tap water. In some cases, such as for lead, bottled water regulations are substantially more stringent.

Bottled Water and Tap Water: Just the Facts
A comparison of regulatory requirements for quality and monitoring of drinking water in the United States
Source: Drinking Water Research Foundation

Are lead standards for bottled water different than for public water systems?

  • Yes, they are actually very different standards. People have many questions about the issue of lead in drinking water and it is very important to understand the regulations designed to protect people from lead exposure through water.
     
  • For bottled water, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Standard of Quality (SOQ) has a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 parts per billion (ppb) for lead. Exceeding this level triggers an automatic recall of the bottled water product. Both spring and purified bottled water must meet the FDA standards.
     
  • Purified bottled water is treated by reverse osmosis and/or distillation. Both of these processes will remove lead. Purified bottled water may be sourced from private groundwater wells, a spring, or from a public water system. However, when sourced from public water systems, it is not just tap water in a bottle. Once this water enters the bottled water plant, several processes are employed to ensure that it meets the FDA’s purified water standard. These treatments may include one or more of the following: reverse osmosis, distillation, micro-filtration, carbon filtration, ozonation, and ultraviolet (UV) light. The finished water product is then sealed in a bottle under sanitary conditions and sold to the consumer.
     
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an “action level” (not an MCL) of 15 ppb for lead. A public water supplier's "action level" response is only mandated when more than 10 percent of residences sampled show first draw water lead levels in excess of 15 ppb. (“First draw” refers to water that flows from the tap when it is first opened, for example, in the morning after residing in the pipes overnight. It is the water thought to contain the highest levels of lead, if present, and is the kind of sample required by the EPA Lead and Copper Rule.) There is no requirement that these sampled locations include daycare, school, or nursery facilities. Exceeding this EPA action level triggers public notification, corrosion control monitoring and treatment. Such treatment may include adding calcium carbonate, sodium carbonate (soda ash), and/or other chemical corrosion inhibitors to water at the treatment facility, allowing a protective layer to build up inside distribution pipes and prevent lead from coming into contact with the water.

Lead and Drinking Water for Children
An analysis of sources, abatement, and regulation of lead in drinking water
Source: Drinking Water Research Foundation

What are the differences in water testing?

  • Per FDA regulations, bottled water is tested for lead annually at a minimum. Testing for microbiological contaminants must be done weekly. However, most bottled water companies test their source water far more frequently. Some test the water several times a day.
     
  • All bottled water companies must test their water for all required substances at least annually, although most test more frequently.
     
  • On a gallon-for-gallon basis, the frequency of FDA-required testing for bottled water is 20-30 times more than EPA required testing for tap water in large communities such as Flint. Public water system monitoring, with the exception of compliance with the EPA Lead and Copper Rule, is typically required only once every 3 years on average. Specific testing for lead under the Lead and Copper Rule is more frequent in systems where needed.

What's the role of recycling in this crisis?

  • The bottled water industry is a strong supporter of recycling and encourages the development of effective and innovative locally-focused curbside and away-from-home recycling programs.
     
  • IBWA is a member of the Michigan Recycling Partnership and a supporter of Recycle By Design, a program backed by Governor Snyder. This program incentivizes and accelerates the development and implementation of innovative strategies to increase overall recycling in Michigan.
     
  • IBWA also supports the bottled water recycling program launched by the City of Flint. Republic Services is providing bi-weekly curbside recycling at no added cost to Flint residents. Additional clear plastic bags will provide for recycling overflow. Drop-off locations have been established as well.