Reports of chemical contamination in packaged drinking water are cause for concern. To tackle the problem, the Government must implement an integrated plan that will improve production standards of bottled water
The deteriorating state of environment is evident by the rising levels of contamination and pollution, so much so that even packaged drinking water may not be safe for consumption. Recently, the discovery of chemical contamination in packaged drinking water has become a serious cause of concern.
A study conducted by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre found the presence of carcinogen (causing cancer) bromate — a by-product of disinfectant — in 27 per cent of samples of packaged drinking water in Mumbai.
The discovery of this chemical compound has prompted the Bureau of Indian Standards to intervene and enforce a mandatory test for bromate in packaged water across the country.
The BARC study was conducted in the wake of an advisory issued by the World Health Organisation on the cancer causing attributes of bromate.
The BIS has now fixed the maximum permissible limit of bromate at 0.01microgram per litre. Prior to this in the interest of public health, the BIS had also made it mandatory to test packaged drinking water for other carcinogens like Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyl and pesticides.
However, post-production diligence and quality control may not be sufficient to control the problem of chemical contamination in packaged drinking water and it is equally important to tackle the issue of illegal water bottling units that are operating across the country.
According to estimates, more than 10,000 illegal bottled water units are operating in the national capital region alone often using the labels of 64 licensed manufacturers thereby putting the health of millions of people at risk.
These units do not have the mandatory clearances from BIS and hardly meet standards of water purification, and yet are able to thrive due to the indifferent attitude of the authorities. The larger efforts of the Government to control environmental degradation and contamination can be seriously jeopardised if illegal units are allowed to operate with impunity and adopt practices that result not only in the chemical contamination of the end product but also unsafe disposal of plastic.
The ground water used by packaged water companies in India is usually high on heavy metals and pesticide residue. Due to this, the companies resort to disinfecting processes that end up leaving behind chemical by-products. For instance, if ozone is used for disinfection in water that already contains bromine, it can lead to the formation of bromates.
Similarly, certain hypochloride salts can lead to the formation of chlorites and chlorates that are known to affect red blood cells. The pesticide contamination in bottled water too is a growing cause of concern. A study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment showed the presence of pesticide residue in packaged water.
People tend to trust bottled drinking water unconditionally and the Government must ensure that this trust is not broken. Health hazards arising out of consumption of bottled water for which the consumer has paid cannot be acceptable.
As the country experiences drought situations in many regions and cities suffer from low quality municipal water supply, the issue of contamination of bottled water cannot be taken lightly. To tackle this situation, the Government must form a three-pronged integrated plan that not only ensures higher production standards of bottled water but also clamps down on illegal bottling units besides bringing down the toxicity levels in ground water.
The authorities must realise that chemical contamination in drinking water is an irreversible process; hence prevention of contamination is critical. As a part of the strategy to ensure clean and pure drinking water, the Government must also strengthen its research and development capabilities in the field of water treatment and purification.
This will not only enable the municipal corporations to stay a step ahead of pollution but will also compel the water bottling companies to invest in research and development to discover newer and safer methods of disinfection that do not compromise on public health or environment.
As an immediate step to control bromate contamination, the Government must ensure that all the bottling companies immediately put a stop to ozone treatment of water and adopt advanced treatment process such as ion exchange and membrane filtration.
Additionally, the Government in association with the Food Safety Standards Authority of India can make it mandatory for the bottled water manufacturers to provide information on product labels regarding the treatment process followed. This will spread awareness in general public about the threat posed by chemical contaminants in bottled water and help in maintaining much needed quality.