Pesticide residues in bottled water
Packaged drinking water or natural mineral water is everywhere. It is now available in pouches, cups, bottles and bulky transparent jars. It is sipped in clubs, malls and fitness centres; glugged …
There was a time in the recently liberalised past when people didn't quite know how to refer to a new product called drinking water. They would say 'bottled water' and 'mineral water' to freely refer to one or the other kind of water, perhaps meaning the same one. It used to be confusing. People were not used to drinking water that had to be bought. People were getting used to paying money to drink water. Paying more money for their water than they did for milk everyday.
Now India is wholeheartedly disinvesting...er, further liberalising. Now, people don't say 'bottled water' or 'mineral water'. These distinctions have become superfluous. Now, people simply ask for 'water'.
Actually technical terms for 2 hotly-selling products - the difference lies in product specifications - manufactured by the private sector, packaged drinking water (pdw) is nothing but ordinary water treated to meet certain quality standards, and packaged natural mineral water (pnmw)is that which is bottled at the source without any treatment. Clean spring water, in other words. Now, these terms have become completely fused, incorporated, into people's vocabulary and lives.
Packaged drinking water or natural mineral water are everywhere. They are available in pouches, cups, bottles and bulky transparent jars. They are sipped in clubs, malls and fitness centres; glugged after a walk, jog or trek; hunted for in railway stations and bus termini, or hurled in a traffic jam. People pick bottled waters from paan-shops, vendor stalls, department stores and supermarkets. Office architecture includes them, and ice-cream parlours, cafes, restaurants and hotels and cinemas always keep a stock.
How then should one react if told that this bottled water, supposedly cleaned for consumption, could contain deadly pesticide residues? One should react with disbelief and horror. Well, go ahead and do exactly that. For bottled water does contain pesticide residues. All kinds of bottled water, whether national (like Bisleri), or multinational (like Kinley). In most, the pesticide residues are above what would be acceptable limits.
Are citizens being fooled into thinking that their bottled water, sold by companies as the healthy and hygenic drink, is pure and drinkable?
Between July and December 2002, the Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (pml) of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (cse) analysed 17 different brands of pdw and pnmw commonly sold in areas that fall within the national capital region of Delhi. The pml randomly bought two bottles of each of these brands from colonies and shopping areas such as Mayur Vihar, Defence Colony, Khan Market, ina Market, Green Park, Lodhi Road and Mathura Road in New Delhi, and from adjoining areas such as Noida, Ghaziabad and Meerut (in Uttar Pradesh state) and Gurgaon (in Haryana state).
The 34 bottles of pwd/pnmw so collected included a host of not-so-popular brands - Volga, Prime, Paras among others - and also the top five brands in the packaged water segment of the beverage market: Bisleri, manufactured by the Parle group; Bailley, also manufactured by Parle; Pure Life, a Nestle product; Aquafina, by Pepsico; and Kinley, from Coca Cola. Care was taken to ensure that no two bottles of the same brand were bought from the same area. Minscot, a brand popular brand in adjoining Gurgoan was also included, as was Aquaplus, sold mainly at railway stations. Once the 34 'samples' were procured, the pml began its analysis. The samples were tested to see if they contained pesticides. The tests were for two kinds of pesticides: organochlorine and organophosphorus pesticides. The pml tested the samples for 12 organochlorines, and 8 organophosphorus pesticides - covering the spectrum of pesticides most used in India.
The pml tested the 34 samples with a widely and internationa-lly used methodology, approved by the United States Environment Protection Agency (usepa) for pesticide detection in drinking water. chlorpyrifos: It is one of the most widely applied insecticides in homes or restaurants, against cockroaches or termites.
Chlorpyrifos was detected in 28 out of the 34 samples. This extremely toxic chemical was found in quantities exceeding the maximum permissible limits by huge margins - on an average of all samples, it exceeded the eec standard by 49 times. For instance, in No 1 McDowell - I (0.037 mg/l) it was 370 times more than the eec permissible limit for a particular pesticide. Bisleri (109 times), Kinley of Coca Cola (109 times) and Aquafina of Pepsi was 23 times higher than the eec permissible limit for an individual pesticide.
Chlorphyrifos is a suspected neuroteratogen - an agent that causes malformations in foetuses.
The tests detected residues of other pesticides as well. Organochlorines such as ddd and dde - both the result of the metabolic conversion of ddt - in 1 and 10 samples respectively; b-endosulphan, a broad spectrum insecticide, in 3 samples, and organophosphorus Dimethoate in 1 sample.
What the pml test found was:
• Packaged natural mineral water brands Evian (imported from France) and Himalayan and Catch, manufactured in relatively clean and less pesticide consuming Himachal Pradesh, were the top three brands in terms of total pesticide content. But even then, only in Evian did the lab find nothing. Himalayan and Catch had respectively 1 and 3 pesticide residues above the eec standards.
• The top seller, Bisleri, was the third worst brand out of the total of 17 brands checked - its concentration levels were 79 times higher than the levels stipulated according to drinking water eec limits for total pesticides
• Its competitor, Kinley, had concentration levels 14.6 times higher than the maximum residue standards
• The prize went to Aquaplus - manufactured in Burari area of northwest Delhi and most favoured by the Indian Railways. This brand was the lethal cocktail - crossing the maximum pesticide limit by 104 times
• The story is not healthy: on an average, in all the samples of all the 17 brands, the total pesticides were found to be 36.4 times higher than the stipulated levels.
The test of the cse laboratory clearly revealed that each sample contained multiple residues of pesticides. In other words, each bottle of clean water was also a cocktail of tiny amounts of organochlorine and organophos--phorus pesticides. A potently disturbing result. A patently horrific find.
Once the results were in, the pml decided to check the quality of the water being used by the manufacturers as their raw material. This would help the pml understand what the quality of the raw water was and how different it was from the quality of the final bottled product. pml resource persons went to plants - located in and around Delhi - to collect water from within the plant premises. They were not allowed to inspect the Aquaplus, Bailley, Hello and Kinley plants.
There is no regulation that the bottled water industry must be located in 'clean' zones. Currently, manufacturing plants are located in the dirtiest industrial estates, or rear up in the midst of agricultural fields. For instance Volga, manufactured by Sai Durga Aqua Minerals, was located in Udyog Kunj Dasna Industrial area of Ghaziabad, bang in the middle of dirty industries and pesticide-drenched fields.
Most companies use borewells to pump out water from the ground (even plant managers who didn't let the pml resource persons in were forthcoming with this information). The borewell depths vary: 24-27 metres(m) for the Bisleri plant at Karampura, New Delhi; for Aquaplus, 61 m. The Minscot plant at Sector 18, Gurgaon bores a little deeper than Aqualpus: 70 m. Even deeper are the borewells of the Paras plant in Okhla Phase I, New Delhi and the Prime plant in Noida (76 m), while the Bailley plant in Ghaziabad plumbs water from 152 m below the ground. The plants also draw exorbitant amounts of groundwater: 10,000 to 30,000 litres per hour.
Some raw water samples collected from the plants revealed the presence of organochlorines such as endosulphan and dieldrin, and organophosphorous pesticides such as dimethoate and methyl parathion. Interestingly, all the source water samples threw up lindane, ddt and malathion and chlorpyrifos. In other words, the source water poison profile matched the bottled water poison profile.
The correlation is truly amazing (see graph: Perfect unison). It clearly shows the source of the pesticide residues is the polluted groundwater used to manufacture the bottled water.
The graph also clearly shows that the pesticide quantities in the bottled water, the 'finished product', are less than in the raw water. But they are still there! How?
All bottled water plants work towards a single goal: purify the raw water. Different companies use a range of purification methods. To remove microorganisms, two techniques are common: chemical disinfection and uv light (irradiation). Disinfectants such as chlorine (most common), chloramines, ozone and chlorine dioxide bump off pathogens in raw water. uv light irradiated into the water is effective against various kinds of bacteria and virus.
These plants use what is called membrane technology. Essentially, this involves filtering the water by using membranes with ultra-small pores. Microfiltration removes most of the fine suspended solids and almost all bacteria and protozoa. Ultrafiltration can block even viruses. While nanofiltration can remove insecticides and herbicides, it is costly and rarely used. Reverse osmosis membranes are even more effective. Yet another process companies use is activated charcoal adsorption; it is effective in removing organic pesticides, but not heavy metals.
According to the investigations done by the pml, it was found that plants manufacturing Minscot, Volga, Bailley, Prime and Aquaplus combine chemical and filtration techniques. The Bisleri and Paras plants emphasise only the latter. To remove pesticides, plants use the reverse osmosis and granular activated charcoal methods.
Surprisingly, these methods are the recommended technologies to rid raw water of pesticides. Why then did the pml find pesticide residues? There can be only two answers. Either the manufacturers do not use the treatment process effecti-vely, or only a part of the raw water is treated. Possibly, the entire raw water is not subjected to reverse osmosis, or only a part of it is and then mixed with pretreated water. It seems logical. There are standards for mineral content in water but if all the water is passed through reverse osmosis, then the minerals would also get removed. Therefore, to meet the mineral content specified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis) for packaged drinking water, it is possible that a bypass stream of filtered raw water is mixed in the end of the process. In one company visited by pml, the manufacturer treated the entire water through all processes, including reverse osmosis and then remineralised by adding metered quantities of minerals at the end. Obviously, the samples of this comp--any fared much better in terms of pesticide residues.
In any case, it is obvious that manufacturers are sitting back and letting the public bankroll them. It is equally obvious that the making of bottled water is a badly regulated process.
Whether it is packaged drinking water, or packaged natural mineral water, the bottled water a consumer picks up to drink is supposed to be a quality product. All quality products have specifications; in other words, norms or standards that have to be met and that ensure the consumer's money is well spent.
So far as the bottled water industry is concerned, there are a lot of checks in place. Any manufacturer who wishes to produce bottled water has to pass through a licensing procedure. His/her infrastructure facilities are assessed. There must be in-house testing laboratories to conduct on-site tests: daily bacteriological analysis, the ability to check the physical and chemical properties of the water being processed for bottling, or any factor that could compromise the nature of the product (total dissolved solids, ph, turbidity, conductivity or colour). Licenses are granted only if the infrastructure is satisfactory. Surprise inspections monitor performance; samples drawn from both factory and market are tested for quality control.
The bis operates a product certification scheme that enables manufacturers to use the Standard Mark (popularly called the isi mark) under the bis Act, 1986. Initially, the scheme was voluntary in nature, aimed at providing third party assurance to customers. Then on September 29, 2000 the Union ministry of health and family welfare - reacting belatedly to the boom in the packaged water segment of the beverages market - issued a notification (no 759 (e)) amending the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1954 (pfa). Effective from March 29, 2001 - even more belated - the bis certification mark became mandatory for packaged drinking water and packaged natural mineral water. There now exist separate standards for both: respectively, is 14543:1998 and is 13428:1998. These lay down the parameters to be tested for and adhered to, and ensure quality.
The manufacturer is required by the bis norms for packaged natural mineral water (is13428) and packaged drinking water (is14543) to meet the required standards for physical, chemical and toxic as well as radioactive residues.
In both the standards, the parameter for pesticide residues is an ambiguous phrase that says that "pesticide residues as covered under the relevant rule of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 shall be 'below detectable limits' when tested in accordance with relevant methods." The 18th edition of the pfa, published in 2002, also says that pesticides should be "below detectable limits".
Here is the catch. The question is: what is the equipment specified to test for the pesticide residues? If the method used is not very sensitive it will not find pesticides in the water. This is precisely what great Indian regulation does. It asks for tests to be conducted using a gc with packed column, rather than a gc with capillary column, the latter more sensitive and easily able to detect residues.
In other words, there is no need to look for quantifiable amounts of pesticide residues. What is a "detectable limit"? What is the "limit" at which a pesticide residue qualifies as "detectable", or "below"? What magical machine, or scientific procedure, can come up with a non-quantifiable judgment?
For instance, in the standard methodology given by usepa, the gc column is clearly recommended but also, there is a limit for each pesticide and for the allowable total pesticide residue. What if individual pesticides are detected? Will that not show up in the total pesticides calculation? 0.0109 is more than zero, right? 0.0007 is also more than zero? Or 0.0009?
It is for this reason that the pml test did not use the bis standards as the norm. It deliberately preferred to use European norms. Directive 80/778/eec lays down quantified norms, maximum admissible concentration for pesticides "per substance" and "sum of compounds", or for individual as well as total pesticides. This way, a test can produce definite results. The pml also used the usepa method to carry out the tests. Why? Because it was not interested in finding pesticides "below detectable limits" according to "relevant methods". The pml gave itself a simpler task: were there, or weren't there, pesticide residues in bottled water? If there, then how much? It wanted, one way or the other, a definite result.
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