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Cover Story

Pesticide residues in bottled water

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Feb 15, 2003 | From the print edition

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 after a walk, jog or trek; sold on railway platforms and bus terminals, or pressed through car windows during traffic jams. Stashed in paan-shops, vendor stalls, department stores and supermarkets, bottled water has made its way into offices, restaurants, hotels and cinemas. Turns out that bottled water, the fastest growing segment in the beverage industry, actually contains deadly pesticide residues. Here's the whole toxic truth

-- 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?

34 bottles

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.

Testing method
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.

How the brands fared
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.

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