Concern over quality of bottled water

Concern over quality of bottled water

When consumers buy bottled water, they assume it to be safe and healthy. Bus stands, railway stations, picnic spots and cricket stadiums are making roaring business in selling water, the cost of which is more than the cost of milk.

The turnover of the bottled water industry is estimated to be around Rs 3,000 crore. But seldom consumers think about the quality of the bottled water. It appears that there is no end for exploiting the consumers in the name of supplying safe packaged drinking water.
Ever since the packaged or bottled water industry started functioning, there is a series of studies by the government and independent laboratories which have highlighted the dangers of bottled water. Despite making it mandatory for bottled water manufacturers to obtain the ISI mark from the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), and stringent quality measures prescribed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), consumers continue to be sold with impure and unsafe water.

Some years ago, the Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Centre had published a report on quality of bottled water and found several discrepancies. In 2015, the Bha­bha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) team tested 90 samples of bottled water and found 27% of the samples contained bromates, a salt containing bromide in excess of the limits permitted by the WHO.

The latest study by the Voluntary Organisation in the Interest of Consumer Education (Voice), a New Delhi-based consumer organisation, has found that some brands of packaged drinking water is microbiologically unsafe.

The Voice tested a dozen brands of packaged drinking water including popular brands like the state owned Rail Neer, McDowells, Bisleri, Aquafina etc, for the presence of undesirable substances and microbiological organisms, pesticide residues, toxic/heavy metals, turbidity and colour. The samples were drawn from the open market and tested against the standards pres­cribed by BIS, in a National Acc­reditation Board of Laboratories (NABL) accredited laboratory.

Micro organism like E coli, coliform found in the environment can contaminate water. They can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps. The laboratory tests has confirmed that total viable colony count was high in brands like Aquafina, Bailley, Royal Blue and A4X and thereby unsafe.

Aquafina contained yeast and mould. However, in respect of undesirable substances, all brands passed the tests. Drinking water can contain Nitrate to a maximum of 45 mg/litre. Except for Aquafina, Kinley and More, all brands contained nitrate, but within the prescribed limits.

The tests were also conducted to ascertain contents of fluoride, silver, chloride, sulphate  and other chemicals. Fortunately, all brands were found to contain fluoride within the permissible limits of 1 mg/litre. Silver was not detected in any of the brands. Chloride is not harmful, unless it exceeds the limit.

The maximum permissible limit for chloride is 200 mg/litre and chloride was within the limits in all brands. Presence of pesticides residues has been a major concern with bottled water. However, the present test found that none of the brands contained pesticide residues in excess of the permitted standards.

Purification systems

Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) are the amount of minerals, salts or metals dissolved in a given volume of water. It is directly related to the purity of potable water and the quality of water purification systems. Rail Neer was found to contain the highest quantity of TDS and Aquafina the lowest.

Consumers rarely read labels and take things for granted. Bottled water contains the letter pH which stands for potential. A measurement below seven indi­cates presence of acid and above seven indicates alkalinity. The BIS requires it to be between 6.5 and 8.5. All brands complied with these requirements.

The labelling requirements were also met with. Based on the overall test findings, Rail Neer is the top performer followed by McDowells and Bisleri. Even in terms of cost, Rail Neer is the cheapest at Rs 15 a litre against Rs 20 for other brands. However, the above tests have not gone well with Aquafina. They have raised certain issues which are replied by Voice.

Though consumer groups are bringing out test reports of many products, the response from consumers is not encouraging, unlike in the West. Similarly, manufacturers come forward to get their products tested by these consumer groups because a favourable report enhances their sales. Consumer movement in India is in need of a new philosophy.

(The writer is Member, Central Consumer Protection Council)
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