A Congressman With a Thirst for Truth

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 9, 2009

There must be something in the water in this town.

The nation is entangled in two wars, a deep recession and a flu pandemic, and the people's representatives are hard at work investigating the menace of . . . bottled water?

"I don't think we have to wait for a deadly outbreak of disease!" said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), holding aloft a bottle of Coca-Cola's Dasani water. Stupak, chairman of the House commerce subcommittee that held yesterday's hearing, titled "Regulation of Bottled Water," called in the deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and others to talk about the terrible threat posed by H2O: "Just because it comes in a bottle, we assume it's healthier," he said, "but it's not the case."

Stupak had found the enemy, and it is Evian. And Poland Spring, and Aquafina and the rest. He even banished from the hearing room the bottles of Deer Park that are usually provided for members and witnesses, in favor of pitchers of iced tap water.

But is it true about this liquid scourge? Or is the chairman all wet? This much is clear, crisp and refreshing: Bottled water has not killed anybody, and it's not even clear that it has made anybody sick. And, as the committee learned, it is already regulated more strictly than other foods.

"With all the life-threatening health priorities facing the FDA, including numerous foodborne-illness outbreaks, complications with acetaminophen and the swine flu pandemic, this issue does to me seem a little secondary," chided Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the ranking Republican on the panel.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) joined in the complaint that "today's hearing doesn't rank on the top of the list" of serious issues. "It shows when you look on your side how much support there is," Barton said, beckoning to the Democrats' seats, empty except for Stupak's.

There are those who say the glass is half full. There are others who say it is half empty. And there is now a third group, which says the bottle that the water in the glass came from should be labeled to show the fluid's origin, as well as its contaminants in parts per billion.

That third group was well represented yesterday in the Rayburn Building, where a House committee spent two hours testing the waters of bottled-water regulation. Aided by witnesses from the Environmental Working Group and the Government Accountability Office, Stupak had the tenacity of Eliot Ness as he took on the Fiji-sipping crowd.

"Bottled-water drinkers cite health and safety as the primary reason they choose bottled water over tap water," the chairman said, with three unconsumed bottles of water on the desk in front of him. "However, bottled water has been recalled due to contamination by arsenic, bromate, cleaning compounds, mold and bacteria."

It soon emerged from the witnesses that there was no evidence bottled water is any dirtier than tap water -- and in some cases, such as lead, the bottled water standards are more stringent. The main difference is one of disclosure: Municipal water, regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, has to make public its test results; bottled water, regulated by the FDA, does not.

But Stupak's grievances against the pernicious liquid were deeper. He railed against Aquamantra Spring Water, and its claim that "the molecular structure of water was changed by a Zen Buddhist monk's thought."

"I'd be highly skeptical," said the FDA official, Joshua M. Sharfstein, but he added that the FDA would only object "if people are saying, 'Drink this water and it cures cancer.' "

And what about Poland Spring's claim that somebody on his deathbed once drank the water and lived? "Historical fable," Sharfstein explained.

"How about the other ones, the makers of H2Ohm, claiming they play musical sounds at their bottling facility that charge the water with vibratory frequencies?" the chairman asked.

"I'm not a musician," Sharfstein said, reminding Stupak that the FDA would step in only if the water were falsely claiming to treat a medical condition.

Of course, if you think Buddhist monks and musical vibrations are altering your water, you probably need a stiffer beverage in the first place.

Some members of the panel were trying hard not to quaff at the chairman's bottled-water crusade. "Normally I have a bottle of water here so if I get parched, but now we are stuck with D.C. water," said Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), pointing out the chairman's confiscation of the Deer Park. "There used to be a little sign in my office in the Longworth Building saying 'Do Not Drink the Tap Water.' I don't know if that's changed, but I'm a little reluctant to drink what's before us today."

Burgess finished before his time was up, and the chairman was pleased. "I didn't want you to get parched," said Stupak, who was not about to let the barbs dampen his investigation.

Finally, a lone Democrat, Del. Donna M. Christian-Christensen from the Virgin Islands, arrived and came to Stupak's defense. She announced that she "may never" drink a bottle of Evian or Fiji water again.

Patiently, the man from the FDA explained anew that, while the regulations for tap and bottled water are slightly different, bottled water isn't held to a lesser standard. In fact, he said, there is "definitely more" regulation of bottled water than of bottled soft drinks.

This was not going well. A congressional staffer in the audience started to play BrickBreaker on his phone. A small dog escaped from the Democratic staff room and made its way to the witness table before being apprehended. Stupak took a sip from his glass of iced D.C. water.

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