Bottled water manufactured by Whole Foods and sold in most of its US stores and on Amazon contains potentially harmful levels of arsenic, according to new tests by Consumer Reports (CR).
CR recently tested dozens of bottled water brands and found that Starkey Spring Water, introduced by Whole Foods in 2015, had concerning levels of arsenic, ranging from 9.49 to 9.56 parts per billion (PPB), at least three times the level of every other brand tested. Federal regulations require manufacturers to limit the amount of arsenic, a potentially dangerous heavy metal, in bottled water to 10 PPB. CR experts believe that level does not adequately protect public health.
CR also tested samples of Starkey Spring Water in 2019, finding levels of arsenic that approached or exceeded the federal limit: three samples ranged from 9.48 to 9.86 PPB of arsenic; a fourth registered 10.1 PPB. Those results are cited in two pending consumer lawsuits over Starkey’s arsenic content.
Drinking a single bottle of Starkey probably will not harm you, says Dr James Dickerson, CR’s chief scientific officer. “But regular consumption of even small amounts of the heavy metal over extended periods increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and lower IQ scores in children, and poses other health issues as well,” he says.
The results of the testing come as the Guardian and Consumer Reports launch a major project this week on the challenges of getting access to safe, clean, affordable water in the US. That includes how the bottled water consumers sometimes resort to as an alternative is not only expensive, but may also not always be safer.
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CR’s findings highlight inconsistencies with how water is regulated in the US. Research suggests health risks from arsenic can emerge below the federal limit of 10 PPB, especially in children, prompting two states, New Jersey and New Hampshire, to lower their level to 5 PPB. Those limits, however, only apply to tap water.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates municipal water in the US, allows states to set their own standards for tap water, so long as they’re at least as strict as the federal level. But federal bottled water regulations, which are enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generally prohibit states from creating more stringent limits for contaminants in bottled water.
That puts Starkey Spring Water in the unusual position of being legal when put in a bottle but, in certain states, illegal if it came out of a household faucet.
A spokesperson for Amazon, which owns Whole Foods and sells Starkey online for $1.99 in a plastic bottle, deferred to the grocery chain’s communications team. A Whole Foods spokesperson told CR that the company’s “highest priority is to provide customers with safe, high-quality and refreshing spring water”.
“Beyond the required annual testing by an FDA certified lab, we have an accredited third-party lab test every production run of water before it is sold,” the spokesperson says. “These products meet all FDA requirements and are fully compliant with FDA standards for heavy metals.”
An FDA spokesperson says that the arsenic levels CR found in Starkey Spring Water meet the agency’s standard for the heavy metal. The agency also says that arsenic is a naturally occurring element and “it is not possible to remove arsenic entirely from the environment or food supply”.
But many of the 45 brands of bottled water CR scientists tested between February and May of this year had undetectable amounts of arsenic, demonstrating that lower levels are feasible, says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy and former head of the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Starkey Spring Water was the only brand CR tested that exceeded 3 PPB.
The FDA, which has not updated its bottled water standard for arsenic in 15 years, says the current limit ensures that the quality of bottled water is, at a minimum, comparable to public drinking water. CR urged the agency last year to lower the federal limit to 3 PPB, a level that more clearly protects public health, especially for children, Ronholm says.
Ronholm said customers paying a premium for a “potentially risky product” was a bad deal for consumers. “Being fully compliant with FDA’s allowable levels for arsenic is a claim that rings hollow when you consider it’s an outdated standard that is inferior to tap water in certain states. The FDA’s standard needs to be updated to be more consistent with public health goals.”
Consumer Reports bought all the bottled water samples anonymously at retail, like a consumer would, and then tested them for heavy metals, including arsenic.
Whole Foods introduced Starkey Spring Water in 2015, with chief operating officer AC Gallo telling investors “it’s amazingly pristine water” that “naturally flows out of the ground” from a spring in Idaho. That point is reinforced on the product’s label, which declares that Starkey is “made by Mother Nature”.
But in December 2016, records show that the FDA was notified of tests conducted by Florida’s bottled water regulator showing that Starkey had 11.7 PPB of arsenic, which is above the federal safety threshold. Weeks later, additional tests found 12 PPB of arsenic in samples taken from other lots.
The FDA told Whole Foods about the results, saying the findings could warrant a recall, and asked how the company planned to respond, according to FDA records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The FDA noted the potential health risks –including cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“With prolonged use of the product for many years, a wide variety of adverse effects may occur,” the FDA report said.
Whole Foods responded to the findings by recalling more than 2,000 cases of Starkey Spring Water in late 2016 and early 2017.
Since then, the company’s own internal tests continue to show arsenic levels at 8 to 9 PPB – lower than the levels CR found.
In California, state law requires bottlers to provide consumers an easy-to-read report detailing the quality of their product. If a bottled water has arsenic levels above 5 PPB, the company must include a disclaimer in those reports noting the elevated levels. Consumers often can find the report on a company’s website or by contacting the manufacturer directly.
“Arsenic levels above 5 PPB and up to 10 PPB are present in your drinking water,” the disclaimer in the Starkey Spring Water report reads. “While your drinking water meets the current EPA standard for arsenic, it does contain low levels of arsenic.”
California’s Department of Public Health says it requires these warnings because it requires similar statements from community water systems, and wants the standards for bottled water and tap water to be aligned.
Studies examining the effect of drinking water with levels of arsenic below 10 PPB have been ongoing for years.
A 2014 study in the journal Environmental Health found that an arsenic level of 5 PPB or greater in a child’s household water supply was associated with a five- to six-point reduction in IQ, compared to those with arsenic levels below 5 PPB.
And researchers at Dartmouth’s Toxic Metal Superfund Research Program have found that long-term exposure to lower levels of arsenic can increase the risk of certain cancers and may be linked to heart disease and diabetes.
New Hampshire regulators relied in part on that research when it recommended in December 2018 to lower the state’s tap water limit for arsenic to 5 PPB. The new limit goes into effect on 1 July 2021.
Kathy Remillard, public information officer for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, says the state now plans to lower the arsenic limit for bottled water distributed in the state to that same 5 PPB level.
While federal bottled water regulations generally preempt state laws, the FDA confirmed that New Hampshire could set a stricter limit, so long as it applied only to products manufactured and sold in the state.
New Jersey set a 5 PPB cutoff for arsenic in tap water in 2006. Water with arsenic above 5 PPB shouldn’t be used for “drinking, cooking, mixing baby formula, or in other consumptive ways,” the state says in a consumer advisory.
But, due to the FDA’s preemption over state laws, New Jersey has no plans to consider limiting bottled water to a 5 PPB arsenic limit, a spokesperson says.
After CR published results from its initial tests of Starkey Spring Water in 2019, several consumers pursued legal action against Whole Foods, which calls itself America’s Healthiest Grocery Store.
David Berke, a California resident, bought Starkey Water based on Whole Foods’ “reputation and long-running multi-media campaign for sourcing and selling safe, wholesome and healthy products,” according to a proposed class action lawsuit he filed last year.
“This is hardly what Whole Foods shoppers bargained for,” the lawsuit alleges. “Plaintiff and other purchasers of Starkey Water paid a hefty premium – especially as compared to tap water – because they were and still are led to believe Starkey Water is the healthiest and least contaminated bottled water.”
In court, Whole Foods has denied Berke’s claims, saying they lack merit and are an attempt by him to “use state consumer protection laws to regulate trace amounts of arsenic in Starkey”.
In a separate action, Illinois siblings Lorenzo and Vienna Colucci filed a proposed class action suit against Whole Foods over Starkey’s arsenic level. Lorenzo Colucci is a stage four cancer survivor “who is keenly aware of the dangers of carcinogens,” according to the complaint.
“Had he known the water contained arsenic in much higher amounts than other commercially available brands,” the suit said, “he would not have purchased it.”
Whole Foods has yet to respond in court to Colucci’s case. A spokesperson says the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Carrie Laliberte, co-counsel for Berke and the Coluccis, also declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.