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Maybe Alps, Maybe Tap

January 11, 2003

Is bottled water more pure than tap water in the home? Is it healthier? A lot of people think so. A survey conducted for the International Bottled Water Assn. says that most users drink it for their health and that it tastes better -- never mind that a blind taste test some years back was won by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Or that bottled water labels don't tell consumers anything useful. That may be about to change, at last.

At least 70 labels of bottled water are available in California, originating from a variety of springs, glaciers, ancient aquifers and less exotic sources. Public water agencies are subject to annual health inspections and must publish statements listing every additive or contaminant of their tap water. Plain bottled water, whatever its source, is irrationally regulated as a food product, labeled with meaningless listings of calories and carbohydrates -- usually zero.

That would change under AB 83 by Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), and companion legislation, SB 50, from Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford). The measures would subject bottled water to the same rules applied to tap water. Bottlers would undergo annual inspections by the Department of Health Services and be required to report on what is in the water -- chlorine, copper, lead and dozens of minerals and chemicals both benign and not so. Sponsors of the measure, including the water company that serves Oakland and neighboring cities, aren't saying the bottled stuff is unsafe, only that consumers have a right to know where it comes from and what it contains. The measure would also apply to water vending machines and water delivery services.

The only really pure water is distilled water, which works fine in clothes irons but tastes blah. The Web site for a bottled water trade group says that the taste of spring water reflects minerals absorbed from geologic strata and that carbonated water's flavor depends on carbon dioxide and some minerals.

The bill's supporters have not yet decided what needs to be carried on the bottle's label; there probably will be a designation of the source and a notation of whether the water exceeds standards for any mineral or chemical. A detailed analysis similar to what the DWP produces would be made available to people who ask for it and should be made available on the Internet, updated annually.

Some labels list no source. Others offer unspecified wellsprings such as "mountains," "spring water, French Alps," "deep protected well in Union City, Calif.," and even "from a municipal source."

A municipal source? So they just put a bottle under the tap and charge $1.19 for it? Well, here's to your health and the bottler's profit statement.

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