Bottled Water Debate

On a remote hillside about 50 km northeast of Walkerton, Ont., springwater flows to the surface to form a clear pool. The area, surrounded by trees and about 1.5 km from the nearest farm, is fenced. Every month, Echo Springs Water Co. Ltd. employees pump about 4.5 million litres of the water through a stainless-steel pipe and haul it by truck to the company's plant in Mississauga, Ont., about 120 km to the south. After plant workers have treated it to extract microbes and other impurities, the water is bottled and sold across Canada and in the United States. Echo Springs' president Mark Rundle estimates that the firm's sales this year will reach $25 million. But how safe is Echo Springs and other bottled water? If municipal tap water can carry the pathogens that brought tragedy to Walkerton, can Canadians trust water that comes in bottles? They can, insists Rundle: "We have the world's most perfect product - it's pure, natural, clean and healthy."

It better be. Canadians, turned off by bad-tasting, sometimes smelly tap water - and alarmed by outbreaks of deadly waterborne infections - consumed 703 million litres of bottled water in 1998, the latest year for which figures are available. To meet strict federal safety standards, more than 200 Canadian bottling firms take water from a safe, protected source, then subject it to processes that include filtration, distillation and exposure to ultraviolet light. Federal inspectors tour most bottling firms once a year. Most Canadian bottlers also follow the even more stringent standards of the Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Canadian Bottled Water Association, whose own inspectors regularly descend on plants unannounced. "If we find anything wrong," says Elizabeth Griswold, executive director at the association, "it has to be fixed within 90 days. Our standards are extremely high."

The system seems to work. Health Canada officials say that, as far as anyone knows, no outbreaks of waterborne disease in Canada have ever been linked to bottled water. And officials from Ottawa's Food Inspection Agency say they field few complaints. Blake Ireland, who supervises seven Hamilton-based federal food inspectors, says serious problems rarely crop up. Consumer complaints, says Ireland, are usually about taste or smell - "sometimes if a bottle is left sitting with the cap off for a while, it can get a kind of plastic smell."

Canadian water bottlers produce a variety of products. While Snowcap Waters Ltd. of Fanny Bay, B.C., bottles glacier water from Toba Inlet, 150 km northwest of Vancouver, Edmonton's Rocky Mountain Springs Water Inc. pumps water from a mountain spring 1,310 m above sea level and sells 410,000 litres a month to local homes and businesses. There are also bottling firms, including some of the Canadian plants operated by French-controlled Culligan International, which draw their water from municipal systems, purify it and market the result as purified water. "That bothers some people," says the CBWA's Griswold. "The knee-jerk reaction is, why spend money on tap water? But when it's been treated, it's not tap water anymore."

Water bottlers use cleansing systems that can minimize - if not completely eliminate - bacteria, minerals and other impurities. At its Woodstock, Ont., plant, Culligan of Canada Inc. puts city-treated water through six forms of additional purification, including carbon filtration, ultraviolet light sterilization and reverse osmosis - a process that forces water through membranes to screen out dissolved minerals. At Echo Springs' plant, water is treated with ozone - a form of oxygen that is 3,000 times more effective in killing bacteria than chlorine - then filtered through a mesh whose spaces are equal in size to 1/100th the width of a human hair.

Now, Ottawa plans to make some bottled water requirements even stricter. Regulations that could take effect next year will likely require more detailed labelling information and force bottlers to be more vigilant than ever in eradicating bacteria - including the lethal strain that surfaced in Walkerton.

Maclean's June 12, 2000