Popular bottled water brands contain toxic 'forever chemicals,' Consumer Reports finds

Carbonated water seemed to be particularly affected.
Plastic bottles
Consumer Reports recently tested 47 bottled waters and found levels of "toxic PFAS chemicals" in some brands.Ilona Nagy / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Americans drink more bottled water than coffee, tea, milk, soft drinks or any other beverage — billions of gallons a year in all, according to industry statistics.

That impressive thirst has drawn scrutiny about what’s in the bottle.

Consumer Reports recently tested 47 bottled waters — including 35 noncarbonated and 12 carbonated options — and found levels of “toxic PFAS chemicals” in several popular brands that were above a limit recommended by some experts.

“These chemicals are called forever chemicals because the way that they are put together, it's hard for them to be broken down — they last very, very long,” James Rogers, director of food safety research and testing for Consumer Reports, told TODAY.

“We are advocating to both the FDA and the EPA that they look at putting a mandatory standard for PFAS for all water that consumers would drink.”

The International Bottled Water Association, an industry trade group, countered CR’s reporting was “misleading and will unnecessarily frighten consumers.”

What are PFAS?

Short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that are used in many consumer products because they’re resistant to grease, oil, water and heat.

PFAS are found in drinking water, nonstick cookware, pizza boxes, stain repellants and household products like paints, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are almost 5,000 different types of PFAS — some studied more than others — and they can accumulate in the human body over time, which “may cause serious health conditions,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted.

In lab animals, large amounts of the two most-studied PFAS chemicals can cause cancer and birth defects — plus have reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects.

Human health effects from exposure to low levels of PFAS are uncertain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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What limits are recommended?

The EPA, which regulates public drinking water, advises a safety level of below 70 parts per trillion for the two most-studied PFAS chemicals. This is considered voluntary guidance.

The International Bottled Water Association has adopted a tougher standard for its members: 5 parts per trillion for one PFAS compound and 10 parts per trillion for more than one compound.

But some experts believe the limit for total PFAS levels should be even lower, at 1 parts per trillion, Consumer Reports noted. That’s the cutoff CR considered for its investigation and the limit it wants the government to set up as a mandatory regulatory standard.

Testing results:

The tests focused on 30 PFAS chemicals and four heavy metals: arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

CR found two of the 35 noncarbonated waters tested exceeded the 1 part per trillion PFAS threshold:

  • Deer Park Natural Spring Water, 1.21
  • Tourmaline Spring Sacred Living Water, 4.64

In response, Tourmaline Spring said the amount of PFAS in its bottled water was below the levels set by the IBWA and all states. Nestlé, producer of Deer Park, told Consumer Reports its most recent testing for the brand indicated undetectable levels of PFAS.

CR found that seven of the 12 carbonated waters tested exceeded the 1 part per trillion PFAS threshold:

  • Perrier Natural Sparkling Mineral Water, 1.1
  • La Croix Natural Sparkling Water, 1.16
  • Canada Dry Lemon Lime Sparkling Seltzer Water, 1.24
  • Poland Spring Zesty Lime Sparkling Water, 1.66
  • Bubly Blackberry Sparkling Water, 2.24
  • Polar Natural Seltzer Water, 6.41
  • Topo Chico Natural Mineral Water, 9.76

It’s possible the process of infusing carbonation into flat water could enhance the concentration of PFAS, Rogers said.

Responding to Consumer Reports, Topo Chico, made by Coca-Cola, said it would “continue to make improvements to prepare for more stringent standards in the future.” Nestlé, maker of Poland Spring and Perrier, said its recent testing did not detect PFAS and that it supports efforts to set federal limits. La Croix and Canada Dry said levels in their products were well below current standards or requirements.

PepsiCo, the maker of Bubly, didn’t respond to Consumer Reports nor a TODAY request for comment.

When it came to heavy metal levels, only one product was flagged: Starkey Spring Water. It had arsenic levels more than three times that of CR’s recommended level of 3 parts per billion, but fell under the federal limit of 10 parts per billion.

Owner Whole Foods told CR its “highest priority is to provide customers with safe, high-quality, and refreshing spring water.” The products meet all FDA requirements and are fully compliant with FDA standards for heavy metals, it added.

Industry reaction:

The International Bottled Water Association challenged the testing method used by Consumer Reports, arguing it “cannot accurately and reliably detect the amount of PFAS in bottled water.”

The trade group also said claims that bottled water with PFAS levels above 1 part per trillion posed a human health risk were not based on sound science.

Bottom line:

Rogers countered the goal was to provide the best information Consumer Reports had based on its testing results. He urged people to do their own research and be aware there can be issues with bottled water.

“We want to empower consumers so they can make their own decisions,” he said.

“If they read our article and they’re concerned, then that's OK, too. Maybe that will stimulate consumers not only to buy wisely, but also advocate on their own behalf to these regulatory agencies and to groups like the IBWA to give them fresh, clean, safe water.”