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Water, and What Else?

June 28, 2003

During legislative debate on a bill to require the listing of contaminants on the labels of bottled water in California, one opponent complained that the measure would do away with existing federal Food and Drug Administration regulations. In fact, it would not. But it would hardly matter if it did. Read the "nutrition facts" required by the FDA on the water label for calories, fats, carbohydrates and the like and see how helpful that is. Zero calories. Zero fat. Zero carbs. Nothing useful, such as amounts of contaminants in the bottled water.

Assembly Bill 83 by Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) would hold bottled water to the same health standards applied to every public water system in California. The water from the tap at home must be tested regularly by the state Department of Health Services and meet certain health standards. The utility has to send a notice to customers each year detailing the results of the tests. Under assault from water bottlers, Corbett's bill passed the Assembly this month with the minimum 41 votes.

Many people drink bottled water because they think it's more healthful than tap water. That's not always true. Some bottlers merely fill up with water straight from the tap. Some claim their water is "pure" when it's not. Truly pure water would be flat and tasteless. No one would buy it.

Corbett would require the bottlers to list major contaminants and their amounts on the label so consumers could judge safety. How many contaminants and which ones to be listed will be a matter of debate in the Senate, where the bill is now in committee. Presumably, it will come down to a half-dozen and include metals such as copper and aluminum and possibly some organic materials.

What's disturbing is how difficult it was to get the Assembly to pass a reasonable health measure like AB 83. The atmosphere in Sacramento has been so poisoned by the debate over the state's fiscal mess that such measures, which would have breezed through in other years, routinely are branded as job killers or overzealous regulation.

It's an open question whether bottled water is really more pure than water from the tap. With AB 83, informed California consumers would be able to decide just by reading the label.

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