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GAO asked to investigate impact of bottled water use

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The public debate over widespread use of bottled drinking water moved to Washington Thursday. Leaders of a House environmental subcommittee asked for an examination of the fast-growing industry’s impact on resources and consumers.

The chair and vice chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials urged the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct the inquiry.

Reps. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md), the subcommittee chair and Hilda Solis (D-Ca), the vice chair, also asked the GAO to separately scrutinize the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standards for TCE, perchlorate and other drinking water contaminants, according to a news release.

On the issue of consumers switching from tap water to bottled, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) said in a news release it will work with the GAO on the study but believes the safety, quality and labeling of bottled water already are well-regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state governments.

“The bottled water industry is confident that the facts will demonstrate conclusively the bottled water industry’s outstanding record of environmental stewardship, conservation, and sustainability practices,” the IBWA news release said. 

In the past year, the bottled water industry has had to defend itself from critics who argue the plastic bottles clog landfills, waste petroleum resources and are merely an expensive way to buy ordinary tap water. Some areas, like Chicago and Hawaii, have proposed special taxes on bottled water and next year California will require bottle labels to specify the source of the water. Several cities, including San Francisco, have banned city departments from buying bottled water for employes.

"In the past decade, sales of bottled water have reportedly tripled, but no one is examining the environmental ramifications of Americans shifting their water consumption from the traditional tap to the plastic bottle," Wynn said in a news release posted on his web site.  "Petroleum is used in the manufacture of bottled water containers and transporting bottled water requires the use of additional fossil fuels.  Today, we are asking GAO to look into the scope of these problems."

But the IBWA news release said the industry encourages recycling and supports local water suppliers. It said for many consumers, bottled water is a healthier choice than soft drinks or drinks with caffeine and noted that in natural disasters or other emergencies, bottled water supplies often are needed when local drinking water is cut off or contaminated.

In addition to the bottled water issue, Wynn and Solis said they also are asking the GAO, which is Congress’ independent investigative arm, to examine the EPA’s current drinking water standard for Trichloroethylene (TCE). The lawmakers said they’re concerned the EPA hasn’t updated the TCE standards despite its 2001 assessment that the chemical was “far more likely to cause cancer than previously believed.”

"Hopefully, GAO can shed some much needed light on the reasons for EPA's inaction," Wynn said.

The EPA's current drinking water standard for TCE allows a maximum of 5 parts per billion.

In their letter, Wynn and Solis also asked the GAO to evaluate the system the EPA uses to select contaminants for regulatory action.

“The EPA has published two new "Contaminant Candidate Lists" (CCLs) since 1996, but the agency has not identified a single new contaminant for subsequent regulatory action, including perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel which presents a risk to human health in vulnerable populations like pregnant women and children,” Wynn and Solis said in their letter to the GAO.

Wynn said, “one has to wonder whether the EPA's process adequately protects the public health."

In November, the Subcommittee passed H.R. 1747, the "Safe Drinking Water for Healthy Communities Act of 2007."  The legislation would require EPA to create a national drinking water standard for perchlorate.

Beginning in the 1950s, the chemical perchlorate was used as the primary ingredient of solid rocket propellant and in munitions. It also is used in the production of explosives and fireworks. It has been found in varying concentrations in groundwater in many U.S. states.

Last week, Wynn and Solis released a report prepared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that said more than 200 commonly consumed foods and beverages are contaminated with perchlorate. The two lawmakers said the report bolstered the argument for a national drinking water standard for perchlorate.





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GAO Bottled Water Feb 2 2008
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