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Saturday 29 July 2017

Bottled water scare as dangerous germs found

Shane Phelan Investigative Correspondent

SHOCKING levels of contamination in bottled waters sold here are exposed in a confidential report by the State's food safety watchdog.

The draft report -- a copy of which has been seen by the Irish Independent -- reveals that harmful bacteria, including E coli, have been found in bottled waters on sale throughout the country.

Environmental health officers found 7.2pc of bottled waters they sampled for the report were in breach of either legal or EU guidelines.

They also found that one-in-every-11 samples of Irish-produced water tested positive for contaminants -- compared to just one in every 119 imported brand samples tested.

Last night the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) refused to explain why the results of the tests, which were completed almost a year ago, had yet to be published.

The findings of the research are set to alarm consumers and could dent confidence in the industry. Irish people drank 193 million litres of bottled water, with a retail value of €205m, last year.

Environmental health officers tested 960 samples of spring water, natural mineral water and other bottled waters as part of the research and the results were described as a "cause for concern".

They found:

l 6.3pc of samples, or one bottle in every 16 tested, contained coliform bacteria, indicating that the water had possibly been contaminated with faeces.

l 1pc of the samples were found to contain E coli, a primary indicator of faecal contamination.

l 7.2pc of samples, or one bottle in every 14 tested, was in breach of either legal or guideline criteria.

l Domestic samples were of poorer quality than those from imported waters. 8.9pc of domestic samples tested contained coliform bacteria, compared to just 0.84pc of imported waters.

l The microbiological quality of still waters was generally worse than for fizzy, with 7.7pc of still samples, or one in every 13 bottles, containing coliforms, compared with just 1.3pc of fizzy waters.

The bottled waters used in the tests were purchased all around the country from supermarkets, corner shops, hotels, restaurants, pubs, vending machines and ethnic stores.

The water sampling took place between September and December 2007. According to the report, laboratory results were forwarded to the FSAI within three weeks of the survey completion date.

The names of the individual water brands tested were not revealed in the confidential document.

A spokeswoman for the FSAI told the Irish Independent she was unable to say why the report had not yet been published. "All I can say is that the report is still in draft format and is not due out until the end of this year or early next year. I cannot comment further," she said.

It is unclear at this stage whether any company will be prosecuted as a result of the tests.

Cleanliness

Under EU regulations on bottled water cleanliness, signed into law in Ireland last year, breaches are punishable by fines of up to €5,000 or a three-month prison sentence for cases taken at district court level.

More serious offences, dealt with in higher courts, are punishable by fines of up to €500,000 and up to three years in jail.

The report stated that environmental health officers had taken "follow-up action" in light of the results. It also said the FSAI had met with industry representatives to discuss long-term control measures.

Irish bottled waters are quality assured by the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI). However, the report stated that revision of the NSAI standard may be necessary.

It also recommended that manufacturers install effective means of treatment to ensure their water is free from contaminating organisms.

The report also recommended that environmental health officers include bottled water in their routine sampling work.

Despite the findings of the report, the FSAI website lists only two public alerts in relation to bottled water in the past two years. Last July two batches of Pure Spring Natural Still Water were recalled after the HSE found that supply water had been contaminated with faeces and was unsafe.

In March 2007, batches of a Lithuanian mineral water distributed from Cork were withdrawn from sale. The batches of Vytautas Natural Mineral Water were found to have traces of arsenic and lead.

Although the levels were above those allowed by regulations, they were small enough not to pose a danger to the health of consumers.

Consumption of bottled water in Ireland has ballooned in recent years -- going from 113 million litres in 2001 to 193 million litres last year. The average person now drinks 44.9 litres of bottled water per year, compared to just 29.3 litres seven years ago.

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