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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bottled water makers make millions off people who believe their products are purer than tap water, but consumers do not realize that they are less regulated than plain old tap water, according to a U.S. Congressional report released on Wednesday.
The report from the General Accountability Office also found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has little power to regulate the safety of bottled water, and even states with the power to regulate it concentrate more on tap water.
The report was just one piece of ammunition unleashed at the bottled water industry at a hearing of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
"Of particular note, FDA does not have the specific statutory authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results, even if violations of the standards are found," the GAO report reads.
Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that submitted a second report to the committee, said in a statement: "Many people assume bottled water is healthier and safer to drink than ordinary tap water.
"But some companies have lured consumers away from the tap with claims of health and purity that aren't backed by public data."
Sponsors of the hearing agreed.
"Americans are willing to pay top dollar for bottled water, which costs up to 1,900 times more than tap water and uses up to 2,000 times more energy to produce and deliver," Michigan Representative Bart Stupak told the hearing.
"Over the past several years, however, bottled water has been recalled due to contamination by arsenic, bromate, cleaning compounds, mold, and bacteria. In April, a dozen students at a California junior high school reportedly were sickened after drinking bottled water from a vending machine."
Joseph Doss, president and chief executive officer of the International Bottled Water Association, told the hearing that Americans drank 8.7 billion gallons (33 billion liters) of water in 2008, or 28.5 gallons (108 liters) per person.
"Sales revenues for the United States bottled water market in 2008 were approximately $11.2 billion," Doss said. "Bottled water consumption is about half that of carbonated soft drinks and only slightly ahead of milk and beer.
The GAO found that the FDA does not regulate a compound called DEHP in bottled water. The Environmental Protection Agency regulated levels of DEHP, a so-called phthalate linked to some health risks, in tap water.
"Specifically, FDA deferred action on DEHP in a final rule published in 1996 and has yet to either adopt a standard or publish a reason for not doing so on the safety of bottled water," the GAO said.
Doss said DEHP was unlikely to be in bottled water, which he said was governed by several layers of regulation.
Stupak pointed out some of the claims by bottled water makers.
"Aquamantra uses the design on its labels to affect the molecular structure of California natural spring water to make it more refreshing and wholesome to drink," one company's website claims.
Poland Springs water talks about a polio victim who lived 52 years more after drinking water from its spring.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham