Look, before you drink

How safe is that bottle of water you just bought? Shaveen Jeewandara highlights health officials’ concerns

The Health Ministry has designated this coming week ‘National Water Week’ and the question they want you to ask yourself each time you pick up a bottle of water, whether on the street or in a restaurant is, ‘How safe it it?”

Nowadays, water comes with a label and a price. With people caught in the constant rush of work, bottled water is sometimes seen as a quick and easy option to quench one’s thirst. So far, the SLS certification is considered the guarantee that the bottled water you buy is safe. The SLS mark is what you really have to look out for, and not the curves and contours of the bottle or the fancy label. Of the current 120 registered companies, 80 have received the SLS standard, which requires stringent quality practices.

Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

In addition, consumers must look out for the Health Ministry registration number, the source of the product and obviously indicators such as date of manufacture and expiry. “Every bottled water manufacturer has to abide by our regulations, unconditionally,” says H. Tilakarathna, Assistant Director of the Food Control Administration Unit. “Before a company can start manufacture, they need to get the water source approved, a sample should be sent to the Water Board for testing, and a 100 feet perimeter around the source should be clear of any intervention such as human waste lines.”

Before a ‘bottled water’ industry is set up, two samples from the source have to be tested by the Water Board, followed by a report from a hydro geological survey done by a qualified engineer, highlighting the extraction process and the possible environmental risks. Secondly, guidelines laid out in the Food Act have to be met. Finally a licence is given for three years, at the end of which the process begins again.

Starting up a bottled water company seems to be a tedious task, with over 25 companies currently on hold, Along with the household names , there are over 120 companies struggling to maintain their place in the ‘water business’.

“There was a time when companies mushroomed, but the current legislation is stronger than what it was a few years back, although we have come across certain loopholes,” Mr. Tilakarathna said adding new legislation covering these loopholes will be gazetted in the next year.

“Periodical clinical and bacteriological checks are carried out by the Water Quality Surveillance Committee of the Health Ministry, and the licence is renewed every three years,” Mr. Tilakarathna adds.
“As much as we try to regulate the bottled water industry, it is also the responsibility of consumers to look out for these indicators as well as for any signs of contamination,” Mr. Tilakarathna adds. “Most of the time consumers make complaints to the wrong authority, and by the time the complaint reaches the intended ears, it is far too late”. (See box)

Safety questions?
Not sure if the bottle of water you have bought from your neighbourhood kade is clean?
Complaints regarding contamination or other problems should be made to the Regional Medical Officer of Health and Public Health Inspectors who have been assigned for specific parts of the country.
The Food Control Administration Unit (next to Blood Bank, Narahenpita), can also be approached for any issues.
Complaints within Colombo can be made to the following hotline : 011 2 67 61 61

“Initially there were not many regulatory checks, but now we are subjected to periodic checks and audits by the Health Ministry, the PHIs, the Medical Officer of Health as well as the SLS,” says General Manager of American Premium Water, one of the big players in the bottled water industry.

“We have obtained the SLS certification along with several other certifications such as UCAS, and this has allowed us to be placed at the top of the market.” The Food Advisory Committee carries out spot-checks, and in some situations case-by-case analysis of water samples is done, but the company has never faced any issues of contamination, he said.

The proprietor of Sprinco Bottled Water, a small player in the industry however states that it is hard to gain a foothold in the industry. “The quality checks and assessments have become extremely stringent of late but we have kept up to it.” Although quality is the top priority of any bottled water company, the current market system is de-motivational, he says. “The main players are the only profit gainers along with the grocery store owner, who ends up gaining more than 50% of the profit,” he states. If the market system is re-evaluated, more and more companies will ensure higher quality of bottled water, as they will be motivated to keep up with the top sellers.

“Sri Lanka is blessed with naturally pure water,” says Sunil Fonseka, Chief of the Laboratory Services of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, recalling an instance where he tested a sample from the world renowned ‘Naboya Water Treatment facility’ in Japan, and a sample of pure untreated water from a well in Aiyakachchi (Elephant Pass), only to obtain identical results.

“But, one or two manufacturers of bottled water ruin the image of the country.”Mr. Fonseka reiterates the stringent tests that the Water Quality Surveillance committee, headed by Dr. Palitha Maheepala, carries out on a monthly basis. The Health Ministry is the sole authority with the power to enforce legislation and take action against substandard companies, he says, suggesting that ‘bottled water’ manufacturers should form an independent body to self-assess, and take the responsibility to improve their own standards.

At the end of the day, the final say rests with the main stakeholder – the consumer. Although the current legislation is quite stringent, and the number of checks are to be increased under the new legislation, it does not mean that the consumer can be 100% sure of the quality of the bottled water he takes. Check the labels, and be vigilant at all times, Health Ministry officials reiterate. The safest and time-tested practice still is to drink boiled and cooled water at home, they add .

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