Natural foods grocery chain Whole Foods introduced its new brand of bottled water at a 2015 investor event, where company executives heralded the product’s purity and healthfulness.
“It naturally flows out of the ground,” said Chief Operating Officer A.C. Gallo about the company’s spring in Council, Idaho, according to a published transcript on its website. “We built, actually, a spring house over it so we can let the water go down to the bottling plant. It’s amazingly pristine water.”
Yet from late 2016 to early 2017, Starkey Water—the name of Whole Foods’ brand—recalled more than 2,000 cases of water after tests by regulators showed an impermissible level of arsenic beyond the federally mandated threshold of 10 parts per billion. A year later, Whole Foods’ internal testing showed results that were under the federal limit but still at levels that a growing body of research and independent experts, including Consumer Reports scientists, say pose health risks if regularly consumed.
Over the past few years, as consumers have worried more about the quality of municipal tap water, bottled water has surged in popularity and is now the nation’s best-selling bottled beverage. But a CR investigation has found that in some cases bottled water on store shelves contains more potentially harmful arsenic than tap water flowing into some homes.
“It makes no sense that consumers can purchase bottled water that is less safe than tap water,” says James Dickerson, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. “If anything, bottled water—a product for which people pay a premium, often because they assume it’s safer—should be regulated at least as strictly as tap water.”
For this report, CR tracked down and reviewed hundreds of public records and test reports from bottled water brands, and from various federal and state regulators. CR found that several popular brands sell bottled water with arsenic levels at or above 3 ppb; current research suggests that amounts above that level are potentially dangerous to drink over extended periods of time. CR believes the federal limit for bottled water should be revised down to 3 ppb from the current federal standard of 10 ppb.
In total, CR identified 11 brands out of more than 130 that either self-reported or, based on tests CR commissioned, had detectable amounts of arsenic. Of those, six had levels of 3 ppb or higher. These brands are Starkey (owned by Whole Foods), Peñafiel (owned by Keurig Dr Pepper), Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water, Volvic (owned by Danone), and two regional brands, Crystal Creamery and EartH₂O.
As part of CR's investigation, CR also was able to purchase two brands of imported water—Jermuk from Armenia and Peñafiel from Mexico—that are on an import alert issued by the federal government for previously having arsenic levels above the federal limit of 10 ppb. Such an alert is meant to “prevent potentially violative products from being distributed in the United States,” according to the Food and Drug Administration. Even so, CR easily purchased the two brands in retail stores in two states and on Amazon.
A spokesperson for the FDA, which regulates bottled water, wouldn’t comment directly on the availability of the products but said the agency takes the issue of heavy metals “seriously” and that if a product on the market is deemed “adulterated,” the agency will take “appropriate action.”
Beverage giant Keurig Dr Pepper provided CR in March with Peñafiel's bottled water quality report for 2018, which stated that the water had nondetectable amounts of arsenic. But the company said this week that it had conducted new testing, because of CR’s questions, and confirmed levels above the federal limit, at an average of 17 ppb.
Keurig Dr Pepper said Monday that it had suspended bottled water production for two weeks at its Mexico facility that makes Peñafiel for export to the U.S. It plans to improve filtration at the plant to lower arsenic levels, the company told CR. For its latest internal testing, the company says it used a different protocol and consulted the FDA. A recall isn’t planned, Peñafiel says, but CR believes one should be issued.
“An arsenic level of 17 ppb is a clear violation of the federal bottled water standard of 10 ppb,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at CR. “Keurig Dr Pepper should recall all Peñafiel water currently on the market that may contain these violative levels. If they do not act, the FDA should mandate a recall.”
Companies can remove arsenic
Arsenic is a naturally occurring heavy metal that can cause disease and also affect child development. It can be found in natural water supplies, depending on the geology of the area. There are also water sources that are free from the heavy metal. Companies can test for it and also use certain treatment processes to remove it from water.
“With bottled water, why should you have arsenic in the water?” says Ana Navas-Acien, M.D., Ph.D., professor of environmental health sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City. “There should be plenty of opportunities for treatment and remediation.”
Bottled water manufacturers promote their product as a pure, healthy alternative to sugar-loaded sodas, and the industry’s sales have been on a continuous climb for years, thanks in part to skittish consumers uneasy about the quality of water from their taps after a highly publicized water quality scandal in Flint, Mich., in 2015.
To be sure, CR also found dozens of bottled water brands that reported nondetectable levels of arsenic. And drinking a single glass of water with 3 ppb of arsenic probably will not harm you, says Dickerson at CR. But regular consumption over extended periods increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, can lower IQ scores in children, and can cause certain cancers and other health problems, he says.
CR’s investigation—which focused only on arsenic levels—shows that, unlike tap water, bottled water is regulated in a hodgepodge fashion. Moreover, some states have inconsistent arsenic guidelines in place for tap and bottled water, with stricter thresholds in place for tap than for bottled water. And public records on bottled water quality are also difficult to access, CR found, with some states destroying company testing reports after a year and other states not collecting them at all.
The FDA set the federal threshold for arsenic in drinking water at 10 ppb in 2006, in line with the standard for drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates tap water. But New Jersey says the level for tap water should be half that. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection says that water with arsenic above 5 ppb shouldn’t be used for “drinking, cooking, mixing baby formula, or in other consumptive ways.” However, the state’s bottled water arsenic limit is still 10 ppb, in keeping with the federal standard. New Hampshire is considering a similar standard, but also for tap water only.
CR says the limit for arsenic in bottled water should be revised from 10 ppb to 3 ppb, the same threshold CR recently proposed for apple, grape, and other juices. Recent CR testing detected the heavy metal in some juices at levels posing potential health risks.
Spot testing 3 brands
For this report, CR decided to commission its own independent spot tests for three brands that the FDA had previously flagged for elevated arsenic levels—the Starkey Whole Foods brand, and also Peñafiel (owned by Keurig Dr Pepper) and Jermuk.
The test results show that Whole Foods’ bottled water still has levels of arsenic that approach or exceed the legal federal limit: Three samples tested this month ranged from 9.48 to 9.86 ppb of arsenic; a fourth registered 10.1 ppb, just above the federal limit of 10 ppb. The tested bottles of water were purchased in March at retail locations.
In a statement Tuesday, Whole Foods said it had recently conducted an analysis on Starkey samples from the same lot used in the tests that CR commissioned. The company said the tests “show these products are fully compliant with FDA standards for heavy metals.”
“We would never sell products that do not meet FDA requirements,” the company’s statement said.
At the same time, the Jermuk samples CR tested revealed dramatically lower arsenic levels than a government test result indicated in 2009. The result of that earlier test prompted the import alert that still remains in effect. CR’s recent test of Jermuk water shows three tested samples averaging about 1.31 ppb, well below the federal threshold and down from the more than 450 ppb the government found in 2009. (The company bottles water at a single plant in Armenia, according to its website. Jermuk didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
All three Peñafiel samples CR tested, however, found arsenic levels well-above the 10 ppb limit, registering an average of 18.1 ppb.
Katie Gilroy, spokesperson for Keurig Dr Pepper, says the new internal tests of Peñafiel were conducted following CR’s inquiries, revealing “somewhat elevated levels” consistent with CR's testing results at about 17 ppb.
“Because the health and safety of our consumers is our top priority, as soon as we received the test results, we took immediate action by stopping production at the Mexico facility in question, working with outside experts, and consulting with the FDA, which is supportive of our action plan,” Gilroy says. “The independent experts with whom we are working have indicated that there is no health or safety risk to consumers at the current levels, and we have begun remedying the situation by enhancing the filtration system in the plant, which we expect to take two weeks. At that point, we will resume production.”
Gilroy says tests were conducted on products for sale within the U.S. market, “which come from one production location in Mexico.” The FDA is supportive of the company’s remediation efforts, Gilroy says. (An FDA spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on this subject in time for publication.)
The International Bottled Water Association, which represents dozens of bottlers, says that any product that doesn’t meet the FDA’s 10 ppb standard for arsenic “should not be allowed to be sold.”
“As with other food products, bottled water that does not meet all applicable laws and regulations is subject to FDA enforcement actions, including recalls, warning letters, and product seizures,” the IBWA says. “This helps ensure that adulterated or mislabeled products do not reach consumers.”
America's favorite bottled drink
The popularity of bottled water can’t be overstated: Consumers nowadays have hundreds of brands to choose from—some carrying celebrity endorsements, others touting big, sometimes vague, health claims. But even as bottled water has become the nation’s most popular bottled beverage, CR’s investigation also revealed an inadequate regulatory regime in place to ensure safety for consumers.
The federal government’s safety inspections of water bottling facilities hit a 15-year low in 2017, according to documents CR obtained through a public records request. In 2010, the FDA conducted 371 inspections; by 2017, that number fell to 209. These inspections include verifying that companies have test results on file for their products.
But records show that some companies have been issued violations by the FDA and state agencies for lacking legally required test data. The companies were required to correct the violations by a later date, records show. The FDA doesn’t conduct tests on individualized finished bottled water during these inspections, a spokesperson said, and relies on companies to produce their own results. (Imported water could be tested during routine border testing at ports of entry, however, the spokesperson said.)
That could be an unsettling reality for some consumers, especially those in cities that have turned to bottled water because of unsafe tap water, such as in Flint, Mich., which continues to deal with the effects of a lead-in-water scandal that began in 2015.
“This is a huge, multibillion-dollar industry selling a product that is viewed by many consumers as safer than tap water,” says Erik Olson, senior director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who published a four-year bottled water study in 1999. He suggests that “meaningful oversight of this extremely profitable business” is needed and that consumers should be able to easily get test results online.
Years after Flint’s lead contamination first became known, donations of bottled water continue to flow into the city. At the same time, perhaps in response to quality concerns that Flint’s crisis sparked elsewhere, sales of bottled water nationally have risen 19 percent, to $18.5 billion in 2018, according to the IBWA.
“These companies make a mint on basically something that’s a free resource,” says David Carpenter, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany. “So there’s no reason that they can’t find a water source that is either very, very low in arsenic, or do the treatment themselves.”
How much arsenic is too much?
Arsenic—found naturally in soil, minerals, air, and plants—enters water by way of eroding rocks and minerals, urban runoff, pesticides, and municipal waste disposal. Because it’s ubiquitous, it can also get into the foods and drinks we consume. In fact, CR recently has found worrisome levels of arsenic in juices and baby foods.
For many years, the upper limit for arsenic in drinking water was set at 50 ppb. But in 2001, the EPA responded to rising concerns about the heavy metal’s health risks by lowering that level, initially suggesting 3 ppb as a “feasible” cutoff. The agency eventually settled on 10 ppb because it “maximizes health risk reduction benefits at a cost that is justified by the benefits.”
Growing research, however, suggests that the health risks of arsenic exposure emerge at levels below 10 ppb, especially in children, says Joseph Graziano, Ph.D., a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and professor of pharmacology at Columbia's medical school. For example, a 2014 study he co-authored found that an arsenic level of 5 ppb or greater in a child’s household water supply was associated with a 5- to 6-point reduction in IQ compared with those whose exposure to arsenic levels was below 5 ppb.
Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can also harm adults. A 2017 study published in Environmental Research found a relationship between exposure to arsenic levels starting around 2 ppb and prostate cancer among men in Iowa, prompting the authors to suggest that the 10 ppb arsenic limit may “not be protective for human health.”
And public health officials in New Hampshire, in explaining their pending proposal to lower the state’s cutoff for arsenic in tap water, cited research that potentially identified health problems that appear at levels below 10 ppb, including “lung, bladder and skin cancer; cardiovascular disease; adverse birth outcomes; illnesses in infants; and reduced IQ.”
In fact, the EPA itself sets its “maximum contaminant level goal” for arsenic in water—the level below which there is no known or expected risk to health—at zero.
Experts acknowledge that reaching that goal may not be practical, especially for municipal water supplies, because the cost of purification could be prohibitive.
But Navas-Acien at Columbia says that consumers often purchase bottled water because they believe it’s a safe product.
“The standard [for arsenic] needs to be stronger for bottled water, as compared to just regular old tap water,” she says.
And the FDA does have a history of enforcing stricter standards: The agency requires bottled water companies to keep lead levels below 5 ppb, but the EPA allows tap water to contain up to 15 ppb of that heavy metal.
Looking for arsenic answers
A key problem, CR found, is that the industry and the government haven’t made it easy for the public to obtain information on bottled water quality.
For one thing, a public repository of bottled water quality information currently doesn’t exist.
Few states regularly conduct independent tests on bottled water for contaminants, as municipalities must for tap water. Many states, however, require bottled water companies to submit the results of their own testing to sell products. But CR found that information can be hard to come by.
In California, for example, CR filed a public records request for all test reports submitted to the state by bottled water manufacturers, as required under a 2009 state law. Because the state discards these records once a company is deemed in compliance, the best it could do is provide CR with a list of companies licensed to bottle water. The state recommended that CR contact the companies for their reports.
So CR did. Ultimately, using the California list and other sources, CR obtained reports representing more than 130 bottled water brands across the country, either through company websites or in response to queries sent to them. CR also reviewed public records and independent studies that have analyzed bottled water.
Overall, beyond CR's tests that revealed Peñafiel, owned by Keurig Dr Pepper, had levels of arsenic in excess of the federal standard, five companies self- reported levels at or above CR’s recommended cutoff of 3 ppb. In addition to Starkey (8 ppb), that included two other national brands—Crystal Geyser (3.8 ppb for water bottled at is facility in Olancha, Calif.) and Volvic (4 ppb). EartH₂O (3 ppb), a firm based in Oregon, reported 3 ppb.
Crystal Creamery, based in California, reported in 2017 that its water contained 5 ppb of arsenic. California’s health department says the company’s license to sell bottled water expired in June 2018, but consumers may still have the product on their shelves.
Another two brands, Aguavida, a regional brand in California, and Badoit, a mineral water owned by Danone, fell shy of CR’s cutoff, reporting 2 ppb, a level researchers say is associated with health issues such as high blood pressure and circulatory problems.
Two leading national brands—Fiji and Niagara Bottling (for its spring water) reported 1 ppb of arsenic on average in their most recently available reports. Another, Poland Spring, reported nondetectable levels below 2 ppb.
CR contacted the companies that reported detectable amounts, and of those that responded, most said they adhered to government standards and that arsenic can be naturally occuring. Crystal Creamery and Crystal Geyser did not respond to a CR request for comment.
“Volvic Natural Spring Water is naturally filtered as it slowly trickles down through hundreds of layers or porous puzzolana sand, basalt, and lava stone,” says Alessandra Simkin, senior manager of external communications at Danone, which owns Volvic. “As the water filters through these different volcanic layers, it absorbs natural minerals, where arsenic naturally occurs. The current FDA Standard for arsenic in bottled water is 10 ppb (parts per billion). The level in Volvic is 4 ppb, well below the FDA arsenic maximum level. Volvic is safe and in full compliance with all applicable federal, state, and industry bottled water standards.”
Austin Bouck, plant manager at EartH₂O, said in an email, “As a responsible producer of bottled water, we continue to listen to the public health experts at the FDA and EPA to help us ensure we produce a safe, wholesome product, just as we did in 2000 when the arsenic limits were last evaluated.”
“We always encourage those agencies to make decisions that are in the best interest of public health and consumer choice, and will continue to reevaluate our water source as new benchmarks and standards are established,” Bouck said.
Separately, independent studies have tested other brands and found arsenic: A 2011 study conducted by the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner/Weights & Measures found that grocery chain Trader Joe’s bottled water had 3.48 ppb of arsenic. Trader Joe’s didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on the study’s findings.
The publicly available reports might not give a complete picture of the quality of a company’s bottled water.
For one thing, water test results can vary not only from brand to brand but also from bottle to bottle, says NRDC’s Olson. “Many bottlers have multiple bottling plants,” he says. “So you can have one plant that has bad source water, or you can have a plant that has a problem with its treatment or with how it’s bottling the water.”
Whole Foods’ Starkey brand illustrates the variation that can arise. The company’s 2016 water quality report listed its average arsenic level at 9 ppb, but on Dec. 15 of that year, records show that Starkey issued a recall after 11.7 ppb of arsenic was detected in a water sample by regulators in Florida. Three weeks later, a second recall was issued after 12 ppb of arsenic was detected in another sample. The Starkey brand is produced at one plant in Idaho.
Ronald Owens, spokesperson for the California Department of Health, says that companies with a single plant can provide the results from just one test on their bottled water report, while companies with more than one plant, like Niagara Bottling, may report a range reflecting the results from multiple locations, so long as no violations have occurred. “Average values can only be reported when all of the individual values are below a required standard,” he says.
The FDA reports on the overall safety of the nation’s bottled water supply in its annual Total Diet Study, but its test results may offer an incomplete picture, as well.
The most recent results from that analysis, from 2016, show that the average amount is well below the federal 10 ppb standard, at less than 1 ppb of arsenic. But the FDA blends samples of bottled water brands together, then tests the composite sample, making it impossible to know the levels in any specific brand from that analysis.
A FDA spokesperson says the Total Diet Study is a monitoring program and “not intended to be an enforcement program.”
“Bottled water is one of over 260 foods tested in the program,” the spokesperson says. “The sample collections are intended to be representative of the diet. Therefore, it is appropriate to purchase foods at regions across the U.S. and to test composites rather than individual brands.”
The IBWA, the industry’s main group, said in its statement that bottled water is “comprehensively regulated as a packaged food product by the FDA. It is required to meet the FDA’s standards of identity, standards of quality, good manufacturing practices, and labeling requirements specifically for bottled water.”
“As with other food products, bottled water that does not meet all applicable laws and regulations is subject to FDA enforcement actions, including recalls, warning letters, and product seizures,” the IBWA said. “This helps ensure that adulterated or mislabeled products do not reach consumers.”
Indeed, over the past five years, at least 22 recalls have been initiated by bottled water firms, according to FDA records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, including for mold, pieces of plastic ending up in the finished product, and excessive arsenic. (The agency has never mandated a bottled water recall, records show, but it didn’t have mandatory recall authority until a new federal law was passed in 2011.)
Additionally, during the same period, the agency has issued at least three warning letters to bottled water firms for misbranded source water labels, E. coli contamination, and failure to conduct follow-up testing for E. coli contamination when coliforms are detected. And that follows the FDA’s ongoing import alert—which began in 2009—for bottled water with high amounts of arsenic.
But CR’s reporting raises additional questions about the government’s oversight of bottled water products known to contain arsenic, and the industry at large.
Consider Keurig Dr Pepper's Peñafiel, which found itself on the FDA’s import alert list in 2015, when a spot check by the agency found that it had arsenic levels above 10 ppb. Public records show that the water has been on the radar of New Jersey regulators going back to 2009. Since then, tests conducted by the state’s health department have found Peñafiel water with arsenic levels reaching as high as 22 ppb, prompting one scientist to write in an email that the water was “well above” the state’s limit for arsenic.
While the state has periodically cracked down on the company—once prompting an importer to voluntarily destroy 83 cases of Peñafiel—the results don’t appear to have registered on the FDA’s radar until federal inspectors independently conducted tests of its own, which also revealed excessive arsenic.
Officials for both agencies couldn’t explain the seven-year gap between when New Jersey first raised a red flag and the federal government took action.
A spokesperson for New Jersey’s health department says the FDA was notified of its findings of excessive arsenic in Peñafiel in 2008, 2009, 2013, and 2014, adding: “I suggest you reach out to the FDA for any additional information.” Asked by CR whether it was aware of the findings, an FDA spokesperson said CR would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get an answer.
One possible explanation for that lack of action and communication: insufficient staffing. A New Jersey Department of Health spokesperson tells CR there’s only one full-time employee overseeing the state’s bottled water program. (Owens, the California Health Department spokesperson, also says there’s only one full-time equivalent employee handling that state’s bottled water program.)
How to protect yourself
For now, it’s mostly up to consumers to educate themselves, and the options for that are limited.
The chart above can help identify some brands of bottled water with arsenic levels that were undetectable or below CR’s recommended cutoff of 3 ppb, based on the company’s test reports. “But remember, those results are self-reported, so we cannot be certain that water actually has the amount of arsenic that is claimed,” says CR’s Dickerson.
If you purchase water bottled by company that isn't on the chart, you can also go to the company’s website to see whether it publishes test results. Some companies include a number or email address on the label for consumer questions. Look for reports that show nondetectable levels of arsenic. But also make a point to review the entire report for other listed contaminants.
You can also limit exposure to arsenic in drinking water—tap or bottled—by running it through a reverse osmosis filter, CR previously reported, but that can be pricey. CR reviewed such filters in 2017 and recommended three brands, including the Culligan Aqua Cleer and Kinetico K5 Drinking Water Station. (Arsenic in tap water is a problem in certain areas of the country, such as in parts of the Southwest.)
If you’d like to get your tap water tested, you can search on the EPA’s website for a certified lab near you (choose your state from the drop-down menu). Additionally, you can review the consumer confidence report for your drinking water or request a copy of it from your municipality’s system.
It’s also important, especially for children, to limit exposure to arsenic from other sources, including rice, fruit juices, and baby foods. “Arsenic’s health concerns are due to cumulative exposure—the more you consume, from all sources, the greater the risk,” Dickerson says. “So you want to limit your exposure overall, and water is a good place to start.”