Your bottled water is contaminated by pesticides. Gaping holes in regulations and corporate irresponsibility in the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry make a mockery of public health

New Delhi, February 4, 2003: We take it for granted that the bottled water we drink is safe.

But a Down To Earth expose, based on tests conducted by the Pollution Monitoring Laboratory of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) shows otherwise.

After analysing 17 brands of packaged drinking water sold in and around Delhi and 13 brands from the Mumbai region, the CSE lab found the samples to contain a deadly cocktail of pesticide residues. Most of the samples contained as much as five different pesticide residues, in levels far exceeding the standards specified as safe for drinking water.

The samples had enough poison to cause in the long term, cancer, liver and kidney damage, disorders of the nervous system, birth defects, and disruption of the immune system. Pesticides do not kill immediately, but can cause irreparable health disorders as they accumulate in the body fat.

The CSE lab tested for two types of pesticides: organochlorine and organophosphorus. The findings were appalling. The four most commonly found pesticide residues were lindane, DDT, malathion and chlorpyrifos. Using European Economic Commission norms for maximum permissible limits for pesticides in packaged water, the CSE lab tests of samples from the Delhi region showed that on average, each sample contained 36.4 times more pesticides than the stipulated levels. The Mumbai samples were a shade better, primarily because the source water used by the industry was relatively less contaminated.

CSE used European norms because the standards set for pesticide residues by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) are vague and undefined. The standards say, "pesticide residues shall be below detectable limits". This, one would assume, means that there ought to be no pesticide residues at all in the bottled water. But no, it actually means that one should not be able to find  the pesticide residues in the water. The BIS has specified the methodology for detecting pesticide residues and this methodology, which is not very sensitive, does not detect pesticides unless present in extremely high quantities.

Even for drinking water, the BIS norms specify that pesticide residues should be "absent". What is plainly absurd is that if drinking water norms specify that pesticides should not be present, how can packaged drinking water norms be so vague, and use a non-quantifiable phrase, such as "below detectable limits"? Even going by drinking water norms, all the bottled water brands tested by the CSE lab would fail the test of quality.

What was found:

  • Top seller Bisleri was third from the bottom, with pesticide concentration levels 79 times higher than the stipulated limits (see graph). Kinley had concentration levels 14.6 times above the maximum permissible amounts. Aquaplus — favoured by the Indian Railways — topped the dubious list, crossing the limit by 104 times!
  • Contamination levels were significantly lower in packaged natural mineral water brands Himalayan and Catch from Himachal Pradesh, a state with lower pesticide use.
  • In the Mumbai region, the worst brand was Oxyrich, with 16.7 times higher pesticide concentration levels than the prescribed standards. Bisleri and Kinley fared better in the Mumbai samples – they were ranked 7th and 4th respectively.

The lab also collected raw water from bottling plants to verify its findings. In all cases, tests showed that the pesticides found in the source water matched the toxins found in the bottled water — proof that the source of the pesticide residues is contaminated groundwater. Plants manage to eliminate somewhere between 20 and 80 per cent of the residues. But no regulations exist to ensure that bottled water plants are set up in clean groundwater zones.

The study is important because of the implications for public health. Pesticides ingested in small quantities over time are known to have severe effects on the human immune system. What will it take for regulatory bodies to tighten controls? Should the bottled water industry be allowed to play havoc with public health and breach consumer trust?