Oct 08 2009
MIAMI – To hear Tom Lauria tell it, he and his people in the bottled water business were just fed up.
A North Carolina company that sells stainless steel canteens as an alternative to buying water in plastic bottles was accusing the bottled water people in its advertisements of all sorts of foul things.
“People do not have to go to the emergency room if they drink bottled water,” said Mr. Lauria, the spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, in an interview.
“If they want to sell a multi-use bottle, that’s fine,” Mr. Lauria said. “But they’re not going to say that our product poisons people, poisons families. Everything in the grocery store is made of the same plastic.”
Mr. Lauria said his group in Alexandria, Va., the biggest organization of water bottlers, distributors and suppliers of bottled water labels and bottle caps in America, sent the company, Eco Canteen of Charlotte, N.C., a notice to stop their “false and misleading” accusations. “They ignored it,” Mr. Lauria said, “So we filed suit. Our membership wanted us to.”
I tried several times over two weeks to talk with people at Eco Canteen. I really wanted to hear their side of the story. Phone calls. Emails. Nothing worked.
Mr. Lauria said the lawsuit, filed in the federal district court for the Western District of North Carolina, was the first his organization had filed against critics of bottled water. And there are lots of critics.
Most if not all environmental groups are against bottled water. They say the manufacture of the plastic bottles from petroleum adds to global warming and that the discarded bottles become almost indestructible garbage.
Many environmental groups advocate drinking tap water from reusable bottles. Several environmentally oriented websites recommend Eco Canteen. But on one website called ecohuddle at least nine people who said they had bought Eco Canteens complained that they had been misled on pricing. “Scam,” said two writers. One blogger said the company was “to be avoided at all costs.” A note attributed to Eco Canteen said, “We apologize if there is any confusion on our products or their pricing.”
Part of the environmentalists’ criticism is that bottled water is hugely expensive. They say it is no better than tap water and sometimes worse. The bottled water association takes strong exception to suggestions that its water is of poor quality or that it is the least bit unsafe.
In the lawsuit the bottled water association says the quality of bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. It says it has its own quality standards and that plants operated by its members are inspected annually. “Every aspect of the operation from water source to the filling room” is tested and audited, the association says in the lawsuit.
The Government Accountability Office in Washington said in a recent report that the principal regulator of bottled water quality, the Food and Drug Administration, was not as strict as the Environmental Protection Agency. The accountability office suggested that the Food and Drug Administration should be looking more closely at the ingredients of plastic bottles, but it did not raise any specific health concerns.
The government report undermined some of the environmentalists’ claims. It said that discarded water bottles, which the environmentalists say are jamming garbage dumps, represented less than one percent of the total waste in municipal landfills. The agency said that while it took much more energy to produce bottled water than tap water, the amount of energy used by the water companies was a small percentage of all the energy consumed in the United States.
Bottled water sales have been declining after years of breathtaking growth. I wondered if after years of anti-bottled water comments from environmentalists, the bottled water people had decided it was time to try to shut down some of the criticism.
Mr. Lauria says, No. He said the decline in sales had nothing to do with campaigns by environmentalists. “The economists say it isn’t the environmentalists who are making a dent,” Mr. Lauria said, “It’s a recession dent.”
Environmentalists say that all of their work against bottled water must have had some impact. But, they say, they can’t be sure.
On their website, the Eco Canteen people sell their 26-ounce, stainless steel canteens against bottled water. On one Eco Canteen website a message pops on the screen: “Kick the Plastic Habit and Protect Your Family.” A video narrated by a woman begins, “Did you know that 40 percent of bottled water comes from city tap?” “Some brands don’t even filter it,” she says, “So why pay a fortune for something you can get for free?” Then a man’s voice: “Disposable bottles last 700 years. They’re taking over our landfills.” One written message says, “Some researchers believe BPA polycarbonate bottles could threaten your family’s health.”
The lawsuit attributes much stronger language to Eco Canteen. It says some of the company’s ads show a spokesperson standing in front of a hospital emergency room and saying that some plastic water bottles “release synthetic estrogen, linked to breast and prostate cancer.” Some ads say that “plastic bottles could be poisoning you and your family,” according to the lawsuit.
The first Eco Canteen listing I found in a Google search carried the words “official site.” The ad on that site made no reference to cancer or poison. But two items down on Google, I clicked on an Eco Canteen listing and saw a woman making the claims referred to in the lawsuit about breast and prostate cancer. It is hard to tell what is going on here. Eco Canteen could do itself a favor by sending a consistent message in its ads and perhaps by getting someone to answer phone calls and emails from inquiring reporters. #