Bottled water is constantly promoted as pure and natural, but research by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism shows it undergoes an industrial bottling process that actually increases risks of contamination compared to tap water.

Yet bottled water is not as strictly monitored as tap water, says consumer advocacy group Choice.

Last December a batch of Cool Ridge bottles was contaminated with a chlorine cleaning solution. The incident served as a rude wake-up call to the reality of what goes on behind the firmly closed doors of Australia’s $500 million bottled-water industry.

After Cool Ridge consumers complained of a strong chlorine smell coming from their bottled water, the brand’s manufacturer, Schweppes, recalled all bottles with a use by date of  6.11.11 from supermarkets in Queensland and NSW. The contamination went largely unnoticed and Schweppes did not respond to the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s ( ACIJ) requests for more information.

Schweppes corporate affairs manager, Robyn Newman, said in an email she was “in full-day meetings for the rest of the week, then on leave for some time”. A call to the consumer info line was never returned.

However, Lydia Buchtmann, of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), said the Cool Ridge recall was not a safety risk and Schweppes “agreed to recall voluntarily”.

Buchtmann said chlorine is used to clean out equipment at the bottling plant and although it was a regular procedure to run fresh water through the processing equipment, “in this case, that may not have been done”.

Choice spokesperson Ingrid Just said consumers are just “being sold a lot of hype” and bottle manufacturers are “climbing over each other to have bottles labelled with ‘pure’ or pictures of waterfalls”.

Professor of Microbiology at the California Lutheran University Fred Rosenberg agreed. He said there is no such thing as pure water and disinfection is not synonymous with sterilisation.

Micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi are always present in water — be it tap water or bottled water, Rosenberg said, but past disease outbreaks were mostly due to contaminations that occurred during the bottling process, not at the water source.

Rosenberg said while running tap water sourced from clean pipes is fine, the risk of contamination arises once the water starts coming into contact with foreign objects, for example bottling equipment and those working the machines. In addition to this, water sitting stagnant on grocery shelves with little oxygen provides an ideal environment for organisms to multiply, which, according to Rosenberg, can be particularly problematic for people whose immune system is compromised.

The latest United States recall happened last week, when Mountain Pure Water voluntarily recalled a batch of bottled water after mould was discovered in a shipment of its purified water sent to Clinton, Arkansas, which is recovering from floods. Health officials said it was unlikely that a healthy person would get sick from drinking the water, but people with a weakened immune system may be at risk. The water was selling in Walmart under a green label “Great value”.

While Sydney Water tests its drinking water for 70 different characteristics and publishes the results daily on its website, the NSW Food Authority told the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism it does not even monitor bottled water manufacturers on a weekly basis.

“The product is considered to be a low food safety risk. The authority would investigate any complaints made to it about bottled water, as per normal procedure with other food products,” said the NSW Food Authority spokesperson in an email.

The food authority states: “Bottled water manufacturers are required to comply with the Food Standards Code and are also responsible for meeting their own code requirements.”

Coca-Cola Amatil (CCA) director of media and public affairs Sally Loane, said in an email that water is tested hourly for contaminants during the bottling process, but results are not made available to the public.

In 2004 Coca-Cola was forced to pull its brand of Dasani bottled water of the shelves of Britain in the midst of a humiliating public scandal. Not only had it been found that Coca-Cola was selling water from the Thames, procured from the mains supply to its factory, but the bottled water also contained illegal amounts of bromine, a potential carcinogen created during the manufacture process.

Loane told the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism that its Mount Franklin brand of water is micro-filtered to remove any micro-organisms or particles and once the water has passed through the final filter, it is bottled in an environment that she said, had sterile air to prevent any airborne contamination.

Despite this assurance, Loane was unable to offer any detail about the treatment and manufacture process for Mount Franklin bottled water in Australia because the information was classified commercial-in-confidence.

In a similar story in the United States, a new study called the 2011 Bottled Water Scorecard found more than half of the 173-bottled water brands surveyed flunked a transparency test.

According to the report, recently released by the Environmental Working Group, 32% of bottled water brands will not disclose their internal treatment and purity testing methods, 18% fail to reveal their water’s geographic source and 13% publish water quality reports that lack any actual testing results.

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organisation who lobby for public health and the environment, said the bottled water industry spends millions on advertising each year, while “failing to disclose contaminants and other crucial facts about their products”.

Disinfectant by-products (DBPs), associated with cancer, were found in 10 brands of bottled water tested in the US in 2008 by the Environmental Working Group. The group also found 37 other contaminants in the water, including caffeine and pharmaceuticals, fertiliser residue and industrial chemicals.

In Australia, bottled water is considered packaged food and as such is regulated by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Members of the Australasian Bottled Water Institute (ABWI) must also comply with their own industry code.

According to the ABWI website, the model code is a quality assurance program that establishes a strict set of standards for the safe processing of bottled water. These include standards on plant construction and design, personal hygiene and cleaning of tankers used to transport the bulk water.

Although Loane said CCA have its own stringent internal quality standards and is subjected to annual technical audits by ABWI approved auditors, the AWBI admits the model code is a self-regulatory scheme of plant inspections whereby bottler members submit the full records of their bottled water test results to the auditors.

The NSW Food Authority provided the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism with anecdotal evidence of past cases of bottled water contamination and admitted to “a small number, perhaps three or four, of minor issues regarding bottle water in the past five years. The majority of these concerned issues like mould or yeast present in the water. There were no reports to the authority of illness as a result”.

Professor Rosenberg said tap water in the US is more closely scrutinised than bottled water and although the Food and Drug Administration do test bottled water, the testing is often internal and not subjected to objective scrutiny.

“It’s suggested that if the company finds any problems that they report the problems, but of course, if you are in business to make money, then you will try to alleviate the problem before you tell anybody about it,” Rosenberg said.

Tap water in Australia is the responsibility of individual state health departments, who regulate it according to the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG), developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

“We can’t be any more transparent really as to the quality of what it is that we are delivering,” said a Sydney Water spokesperson.

Water is filtered then disinfected using chlorine. Ammonia is also added in some systems in a disinfection process known as “chloramination”.

Drinking water is tested at every stage of the supply system. The Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA) tests water in the catchments. Sydney Water tests the water immediately after it is treated, in distribution pipes and at 650 customers’ taps, according to its spokesperson.

*This story is part of Pure Plastiky, a project of the Global Environmental Journalism Initiative and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism