James Conaway's article on bottled waters {"Puttin' on the Spritz," magazine, Aug. 23} unfortunately deals with the taste but not the contents of bottled water. He mistakenly dismisses concerns about drinking-water pollutants ("but that's another story") as if they were relevant only to water from the tap and not water from the bottle. In fact, bottled water does not in any way offer an escape from the problem of polluted drinking water, as bottlers would like us to believe.

Bottled water is, as an Environmental Protection Agency representative termed it, "a tricky beast." It is regulated as a food by the Food and Drug Administration, but only bottled water that is marketed across state lines must meet federal drinking-water standards, limited as they are. Public water right from the tap is a legally acceptable source of bottled water. And the FDA has not defined mineral water as a product, so it is exempt from all drinking-water regulations.

In his article, Conaway's cup runneth over, so to speak, with praise for various bottled waters. However, in tests of 50 bottled waters by Consumer Reports magazine (January 1987), they did not fare so well. In terms of sensory quality, Perrier ranked 23rd out of 25 sparkling waters. Ramlosa ranked only 10th, Apollinaris only 13th out of the sparkling waters, claims of royal approval aside. Saratoga ranked only 21st in the sparkling waters category. Evian ranked only 10th out of 25 still waters and received a reprimand for claiming, as the Apollinaris bottlers do also, that its product is better for rehydrating than other waters. That is "hokum," according to an FDA official.

In testing by the New York State Department of Health of 93 bottled water products, more than half of the products were found to contain one or more toxic organic chemicals at various levels. The department's conclusions, released in March 1987, stated that "all bottled water products may have organic chemical contaminants present" and that bottlers should be required to conduct monitoring of their source water and finished product water for organic chemicals.

Also, bottled water does not provide any exit from exposure to toxic chemicals through bathing and doing household work. Research by the EPA, the University of Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering has shown that householders could receive from six to 100 times more chemicals by breathing air around showers, baths, dishwashers and washing machines than by drinking the water. The "antibacterial concoctions," or chlorine disinfectants, that Conaway refers to are only part of the problem, and at least they also affect the taste of the water so you can tell that they are there.

By focusing on taste as an attribute of drinking water, Conaway has diverted attention from the understandable concern citizens across America are expressing about drinking-water safety and quality. The American Water Works Association tries to accomplish this also with its annual taste-test of various cities' water.

Bottled water is not an easy escape (for those who can afford it) from the health hazards posed by polluted drinking-water supplies across the United States. Those who drink it -- and pay on average six times more per gallon than for tap water -- should carefully investigate its contents.

Duff Conacher

The writer is a staff researcher at Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law.