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How safe is bottled water?

Testing at the SLSI chemical laboratory

Is 'bottled water' safer for consumption than pipe borne water?

We need answers to this question, especially since our daily routines force us, the town-dwellers, to quench our thirst with gallons of water which come in plastic bottles.

Available in most boutiques and supermarkets in Sri Lanka, plastic water bottles come in various forms, shapes and brand names. They are described as 'bottled drinking water', 'mineral water' or 'spring water'.

But in our daily routine, there is hardly any time to look around for proof of their safety. More often than not, we hardly pause for a moment to have a look at the label.

The label can say a lot, experts say. For instance, consumers must ensure that the label has a Health Ministry registration number, date of manufacture and expiry, the source (water) of the product and a standard certification, for instance the SLS mark.

The SLS mark or any other standard certification guarantees that the product has been tested over and over again for its safety and quality standards. There is regular monitoring for re-registration. This ensures that the liquid that enters your system would not ultimately make you sick.

According to health officials, the process of obtaining authorisation to package and sell drinking water is stringent in Sri Lanka.

The Health Ministry is the sole authority that can permit a new water bottling plant. Without their licence, a new brand of bottled water cannot reach our market shelves. this applies to imported brands as well. The process to obtain the licence is quite stringent.

Nevertheless, the Food Unit of the Health Ministry warns consumers to be vigilant. As with all other products, there can be room for impurities to invade the market.

Complaints should be made to - The local Medical Officer of Health (MOH) with a copy to the Food Control Administration Unit (next to Blood Bank, Narahenpita)

Bottled drinking water- involves a purification or treatment process after it is extracted from the source. The water taken from the source may not necessarily be pure.

Natural mineral water - Except for some form of filtering, no purification is done. The water is natural. The bottling plant has to be near the source. The licensing process for natural mineral water is very stringent because the Chief Food Authority needs to be convinced that this water is from a good source. There is only one natural mineral water brand in Sri Lanka at present.

Boiled water - The most foolproof method of making drinking water safe is by boiling. Bringing the water to the boiling point of 100 degrees Celsius will kill most of the pathogenic organisms in water that could make you ill. There is no need to boil it for 10 minutes, you will only be wasting fuel.

"We cannot keep a tab on all the products sold everywhere. The consumer's share of responsibility is very valuable in this instance," Dr. C. K. Shanmugarajah, former Director Environmental, Occupational and Food Safety Unit of the Health Ministry who now functions as a consultant at the Food Control Administration Unit (FCAU) said.

"Generally, the bottled water products in Sri Lanka conform to safety regulations," he added saying that the MOH in the area or the FCAU of the Health Ministry (which is next to the Blood Bank, Narahenpita) can be notified of any suspected brands in the market.

"We will subject it to a lab test and remove the product from the market if it is found to be unfit for human consumption, he said.

The Unit had confiscated a stock of bottled water sold near the Cancer Hospital in the recent past. A complainant who contacted the Food Control Administration Unit said the particular brand did not carry the Health Ministry registration number, and the entire stock was removed from the shelves.

Thriving business

There were nearly 300 brands of bottled water in the market in mid-2000. "It was a thriving business then. That was when we thought this area needs to be regulated," Dr. Shanmugarajah said. The Health Ministry introduced regulations under the Food Act of 1980 to protect the rights of consumers. The regulations were made effective in May 2006.

Thus, it was prohibited to bottle, package, import or distribute mineral or drinking water without obtaining a certificate of registration from the Chief Food Authority of the Health Ministry.

The standard certification from the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLS) however, is not compulsory, but if the SLS or any other certification is printed, it means the product has undergone strict and regular monitoring to ensure its purity.

The Chief Food Authority has permitted 120 brands of bottled water to be sold in the country. However, there are only 116 brands of bottled water in the market.

Three factories are now out of business and the licence of one factory was cancelled due to the presence of e-coli bacteria found in human excreta, in their product. There are 25 new applications awaiting approval. When a new water bottling plant needs registration, the applicant should submit samples of the water from the particular source and a hydro geological survey report by a qualified engineer as to how much water can be extracted from the particular source without harm to the environment among other things.

It would be a preliminary screening to evaluate the premises and the individual's capacity to continue the plant. Then the samples would be submitted for laboratory testing.

"We have a memorandum of understanding with the SLSI for evaluation. The SLSI makes a recommendation to the Chief Food Authority in six to nine months. They will evaluate whether the source is satisfactory, the processing plant up to standard, and whether the periphery satisfies the hygienic conditions, he said.

Samples collected

Two samples are then collected from the source in addition to the already packaged samples. the SLSI reports on a pre-defined checklist. then they recommend the granting of the approval. There are no specific tests carried out on the bottle, but packaged samples are tested to determine if the plastic bottle contains any harmful material to the consumers.

Testing at the microbiology laboratory

"Initially, the permit would be effective for three years and then the manufacturer should apply for re-registration where the whole process would be repeated. This will give us time to re-evaluate if the source or the product has been altered in any way," Dr. Shanmugarajah said.

The Health Ministry has not conducted any market surveys to test the bottled water on the shelves since 2008. They earlier mobilised PHIs on a particular day to collect samples from each brand and subject it to laboratory testing. The tests conducted earlier, however, did not find any blemished samples.

"This shows that we had a very good system of licensing in place. But these random checks have not been carried out since 2008," he pointed out.

"Boiled and cooled water is very safe and you are also assured of its safety. This is best for consumption in the domestic front. Pipe-borne water, if boiled and cooled, can be deemed the safest for consumption," Dr. Shamugarajah explained. He said he would not recommend the direct consumption of pipe-borne water. Although it is purified before being released, there could be contamination in between.

Bottled water may be a convenient source, but the habit of drinking boiled, cooled water at home should never be discouraged.

Chairman SLSI Kanchana Ratwatte, Deputy Director General Dr. Priyadarshani Talgaswatte and laboratory officials of the SLSI provided assistance and information for this article.

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