Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Certification of bottled water?

In a previous post, I replied to a reader on bottled water. I thought I should write a bit more about this topic of bottled water here.

Bottled water is probably worse than drinking water in terms of the bewildering plethora of regulations and certifications. To streamline this discussion a bit (and also to keep this post readably short), I will just touch on some of the major ones.

International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) (based in USA)
Bottled water companies can pay to become its members. It has a documented code of practice here. However, members have the discretion to follow (or not to follow) the code.

The document includes guidelines for operating a bottling plant, water quality parameters to test for in both source and finished water.

It also has definitions for the different types of bottled water. Other regulatory organisations have roughly similar definitions. If you thought bottled water is simply water, check out the following xxx water.

  1. "Artesian Water" or “Artesian Well Water” means bottled water from a well tapping a
    confined aquifer in which the water level stands at some height above the top of the aquifer.
  2. "Demineralized Water" means bottled water which is produced by distillation, deionization,reverse osmosis, or other suitable process and that meets the definition of purified water.
  3. "Deionized Water" means water that has been produced by a process of deionization and that meets the definition of "purified water"
  4. "Distilled Water" means water which has been produced by a process of distillation and
    meets the definition of "purified water"
  5. "Mineral Water" means water containing not less than 250 parts per million (ppm) total dissolved solids (TDS), coming from a source tapped at one or more boreholes or springs,
    originating from a geologically and physically protected underground water source.
  6. "Natural Water" means bottled spring water, mineral water, artesian water, artesian wellwater, or well water which is derived from an underground formation or water from surface
    water that only requires minimal processing
  7. "Spring Water" means water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth.
USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
In USA, bottled water is tightly regulated by FDA. Note that tap water in USA is regulated by EPA instead.
Some interesting points:
  1. "FDA monitors and inspects bottled water products and processing plants under its general food safety program, not a specific bottled water program.
  2. As with other types of food, FDA periodically collects and analyzes samples of bottled water.
  3. FDA laboratories may test the water for microbiological, radiological or chemical contamination. Individual samples are not tested for all possible contaminants cited in the quality standard, but for selected contaminants, depending on the reason for the sampling.
  4. Bottled water is considered to have an indefinite safety shelf life if it is produced in accordance with CGMP and quality standard regulations and is stored in an unopened, properly sealed container. Therefore, FDA does not require an expiration date for bottled water. However, long-term storage of bottled water may result in aesthetic defects, such as off-odor and taste. Bottlers may voluntarily put expiration dates on their labels.
  5. The materials used to produce plastic containers for bottled water are regulated by the FDA as food contact substances. Food contact substances must be approved under FDA's food additive regulations."
EU's European Federation of Bottled Waters (EFBW)
All bottled waters are strictly regulated under EU law.

Of particular interest is Directive 98/83/EC on the quality of water intended for human consumption. Like other regulatory documents, it lists down quality standards (these as usual include chemical, microbiological and radiological parameters), sampling and monitoring.


National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) (based in USA)

As seen above, FDA and EFBW are legislative and regulatory in nature while IBWA is more about self-regulation/compliance. Guess what, NSF is really about certification!

Its certification process seems quite comprehensive
  • HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) and ingredient review
  • Facility audit
  • Product testing
    • The client get to choose which regulations to test against e.g. FDA, EU, WHO
  • Source water testing
  • Label review
  • Recertification
    • Done yearly via an unannounced audit and product testing
Bottled water supplies certified as such will get to stick the NSF logo on their products and have their company names listed in the NSF database.
In case you are thinking to rushing to click the above database link to see whether your favourite bottled water is listed there and if you are staying in Singapore (SG), I think you may be disappointed. Hardly any of our local bottled water suppliers are shown. In fact, the only NSF certified bottled water I found (though there may be others I am not aware of) is Icelandic Glacial Natural Spring Water retailed by Watsons. (No, of course I am not promoting or endorsing the drink. I am simply using it as an example.)

Personally, I believe NSF certification is a great step forward for a bottled water. IT definitely endows more confidence to the consumer on the safety of the product.
Finally, what about SG itself?

When I did a quick scan of the bottled water around me, it seems most of them come from Malaysia and Indonesia unless you have the cash to spare and buy brands imported from Europe. Quite a few large companies have bottled water labelled with their companies' logos and names and those are typically from our 2 neighbouring countries.

Before you suspect the safety and quality of these uncertified products, understand that all bottled water in SG are regulated under AVA.

Referring to AVA's document, many documents have to be submitted to AVA e.g. site plan of the water source, factory licence, authentication certificate for import of bottled water. Every consignment has to be accompanied by a health certificate that includes the concentrations of various water quality parameters (microbiological and chemical, no radiological though).

In addition, "meeting the import requirements does not exempt the imported consignments from inspection and sampling for laboratory tests by AVA"

My take
Unlike water filters, bottled water (even more for tap water) is pretty regulated in terms of legislation. Still, compare AVA's bottled water requirements of about 30 water quality parameters to WHO's ~200 parameters for drinking water or PUB's similarly numerous parameters for tap water and you get the idea that bottled water is lagging behind in its stringency... unless a bottled water supplier is willing to get NSF certification based on WHO drinking water standards.

So buyers take note, bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bottled water vs. tap water

Dear Mr Chen Ko,


I read some of your blogs and would appreciate your advice. As I understand a minute amount of NEwater is added into the reservoirs and then subsequently makes its way into our tap water through the normal processes. 


While the amount of NEwater is small, I am now thinking of using bottled water for my family. I have been searching through and I can't find any company that provides distilled water made from mineral water. They all seem to state that their distilled water is from the local water supply.


If one was to buy mineral water, would that be good for the body in the long run? Or do you have any suggestions on other types of water to consume, such as spring water and etc.


Your earliest reply is appreciated.



Dear Shabbir,

  1. For those outside of Singapore (SG), Newater is our national brand of water further reclaimed from the effluent of wastewater treatment plant (euphemistically named water reclamation plant (WRP)). Our local and only water utility company, PUB, has been adding Newater in small amounts into our reservoirs. The combined water is subsequently sent for water treatment before ending up in our taps.

    Just wondering, do you have any particular concerns with regards to this practice? I am neither pro- nor anti-PUB but I fail to see any problems arising due to this. Water is water and with the proper treatment, any contaminant can be removed or at least reduced to below detection limits.

    Figure: Newater

  2. A couple of thoughts about bottled water
    1. It is expensive! Easily the most expensive form of water vs. tap and filtered water. If I have the money to go long term on bottled water, I will probably use an alternative source of water and use the leftover money for something else :-)
    2. The plastic itself lends to waste. Though recyclable, I would rather not use it in the first place.
    3. Certain bottled are treated (filtered or otherwise) tap water. In the case of bottled distilled water, the treatment includes a distillation step.
    4. Depending on how clean the treatment and bottling setup is, bottled water can already be contaminated with fecal matter, bacteria, solvents etc. despite its beautiful packaging.
    5. Even so called "mineral water" are often produced by adding chemicals (aka minerals) into treated water. Only in certain cases are the water really obtained from real mineral water from the ground.

      Figure: bottled water

  3. As for distilled water
    1. It is similar to RO (reverse osmosis) water, demineralised water (possibly by ion exchange) and Newater in the sense that it has little constituents i.e. as close to pure water as you can get.
    2. Therefore, it does not make sense to produce distilled water from mineral water. All the minerals would have been stripped, rendering the perceived advantages of mineral water moot.
    3. Water, whether distilled, demineralised or RO, is "aggressive". It has so little constituents that it becomes reactive.
      1. There had been claims that it can leach minerals and nutrients from your body. However, there are studies that have refuted otherwise so I personally think that this issue is inconclusive.
      2. Of greater concern is such aggressive waters can attack (read corrode) the distribution network, leaching chemicals from piping and fixtures. How would you like to have your coffee laced with lead and copper?
      3. And don't forget how you store your water. If your storage container is not inert like glass, the same aggressive water can also leach out chemicals from your favourite plastic jug.
      4. Others claim that these "pure" waters are doing a disservice to your body since they are not providing the minerals your body needs. My take is I drink water because I need water. The minerals I need are more effectively obtained from my food or possibly supplements. (Again some studies have shown that minerals e.g. calcium, magnesium can indeed be obtained from your drinking water which I believe. But why bank on your water for a small amount of these nutrients when you should focus on getting a balanced diet?)
  4. In answer to your question: No, I don't believe mineral water (in the form of bottled water) is a long term solution to your water needs because of the reasons given above. In an emergency or short term usage (e.g. 2-week community service in a developing country), bottled water has its place but no more than that.

    I still maintain my stand that our (SG) tap water is good enough to consume unless you have specific concerns, perhaps due to certain health condition or maybe your particular belief in the properties of our tap water. In that case, I recommend that you pinpoint that concern and address it via a suitable treatment method which can be superior to whatever treatment used in bottled water.