Bottled water is full of microplastics. Is it still 'natural'?

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Is bottled water really “natural” if it is contaminated with microplastics? A series of lawsuits recently filed against six bottled water brands claim that it is misleading to use labels like “100 percent mountain spring water” and “natural spring water” — not because of the water's origins, but because it is likely contaminated with tiny plastic fragments.

Reasonable consumers, the lawsuits allege, would read those labels and assume that bottled water is completely free of contaminants; if they knew the truth they might not have bought it. “Plaintiff would not have purchased bottled water and/or paid a price premium if he had known that it contained 'hazardous substances',” it said. the lawsuit against the bottled water company Poland Spring.

The six lawsuits are against the companies that own Arrowhead, Crystal Geyser, Evian, Fiji, Ice Mountain and Poland Spring. They are seeking damages in various forms for lost money, wasted time and “stress, annoyance, frustration, loss of confidence, loss of serenity and loss of confidence in the labeling of products.”

Experts aren't sure this is a winning legal strategy, but it is a creative new approach for consumers looking to protect themselves from the ubiquity of microplastics. Research in recent years has identified these particles – fragments of plastic with a diameter of less than 5 millimeters – just about everywhere, in nature and in the bodies of people. Studies have linked them to a range of health problemsincluding heart disease, reproductive problems, metabolic disorders, and, in a recent landmark study, a increased risk of death from any cause.

Of the six class action lawsuits, five were filed earlier this year by the law firm Todd M. Friedman, a consumer protection and employment firm with offices in California, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The sixth was filed by the firm Ahdoot & Wolfson on behalf of a New York City resident.

Each lawsuit uses the same general argument to make its case, starting with research into the prevalence of microplastics in bottled water. Some of them mention a 2018 research from Orb Media and the State University of New York at Fredonia that found microplastic contamination in 93 percent of tested bottles from eleven brands in nine countries. Researchers found more than 1,000 pieces of microplastic per liter in half of the brands tested. (A standard bottle holds about half a liter of water.) More recent research has found that typical water bottles have much higher levels: 240,000 particles per liter on average, taking into account smaller fragments known as 'nanoplastics'.

The complaints then go on to argue that bottled water contaminated with microplastics cannot be “natural,” as implied by product labels such as “natural artisanal water” (Fiji), “100 percent natural spring water” (Poland Spring), and “natural spring water” (Evian). The Poland Spring lawsuit cites a dictionary definition of natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not created or caused by humanity.” That lawsuit and the others also point to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which does not strictly regulate the use of the word “natural,” but “a long-standing policy'of the idea that the term means that a food is free from synthetic or artificial additives 'not normally found in that food'.

The Arrowhead bottled water lawsuit, advertised as “100 percent mountain spring water,” states that “100 percent” is misleading. “Reasonable consumers do not understand that the term '100 percent' means '99 percent', '98 percent', '97 percent' or any percentage other than '100 percent,'” the complaint reads. In other words, consumers expect a product labeled as 100 percent water contains exactly 0 percent microplastics.

Do reasonable consumers really take labels so literally? Jeff Sovern, a professor of consumer protection law at the University of Maryland, said it's “plausible” that people expect bottled water labeled “natural” not to contain non-natural microplastics, but that's hard to say without conducting a study. It will be up to the judges to assess that argument – ​​if the cases go to trial. One of the lawsuits the Todd M. Friedman firm filed against the company that owns Crystal Geyser was withdrawn last month may have been a sign that the parties have reached a settlement.

“A lot of these types of cases are being settled,” said Laura Smith, legal director of the nonprofit Truth in Advertising, Inc. This may reflect the strength of plaintiffs' arguments, but also a company's desire to avoid the costs of going to court.

In response to Grist's request for comment, Evian – owned by Danone – said it could not comment on active litigation, but that it “denies the allegations and will vigorously defend itself in the lawsuit.”

“Microplastics and nanoplastics are found throughout the environment in our soil, air and water, and their presence is a complex and evolving area of ​​science,” a spokesperson told Grist, adding that the FDA has not issued any regulations for nano or microplastic particles . in foods and drinks.

The companies named in the other lawsuits – BlueTriton Brands Inc., CG Roxane LLC and The Wonderful Co. LLC – did not respond to requests for comment.

Erica Cirino, spokesperson for the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition, said the new lawsuits are part of a long-term effort to hold bottled water companies accountable not only for microplastic pollution, but also for other misleading claims about the purity of their products. A 2017 lawsuit against Nestlé alleged that the “Pure Life Purified” brand name and labels misrepresented the purity of the water, in violation of the California Legal Remedies Act. That case was dismissed in 2019 due to a “the inability to advance a cognizable theory of law”; The “natural” claims of the latest lawsuits represent a different tactic.

Perhaps the best-known legal challenges concern the origins of so-called “spring water.” For example, in 2017, a class action lawsuit against Nestlé Waters North America, then owner of Poland Spring, said the company fooled customers into buying “ordinary groundwater.” a A U.S. District Court judge dismissed that lawsuit in 2018 on the grounds that the charges improperly cited violations of a state law, rather than a federal law. Nestlé has reached a settlement similar lawsuit in 2003 for $10 millionalthough it denied that its practices were misleading.

More recent lawsuits have focused on bottled water companies' claims that their products “climate neutral“, or that their bottles “100 percent recyclable.” Only 9 percent of plastic worldwide is ever recycled.

Many of these lawsuits have yet to be reviewed by a judge 2021 complaint against Niagara Bottling The following year, more than “100 percent recyclable” labels were thrown out by a U.S. District Court in New York.

According to Smith, one hurdle to these lawsuits is that they can only cite research into the microplastics. potential to harm people's health, rather than actual harm they suffered from drinking contaminated bottled water. Even if the plaintiffs had health problems related to microplastics, these particles are ubiquitous; it would be nearly impossible to isolate the effects of drinking microplastics in bottled water from those of microplastics found everywhere else.

“It's a broader systemic problem with our entire food and beverage supply,” Cirino said.

Keeping microplastics out of people's bodies would require a similar systemic approach, potentially involving government regulations and incentives for companies to replace single-use plastics with reusable materials made of glass and aluminum – as well as an overall reduction in the amount plastic that makes the world. In the meantime, the idea was suggested in a recent article in The Dieline applying microplastic warning labels to plastic water bottles.

Of course, anyone concerned about drinking plastic can turn to tap water, which is usually the case has lower concentrations of microplastics and other contaminantsand is hundreds of times cheaper then water from a plastic bottle. Research shows that more than… 96 percent of community water systems in the United States meet government standards for potability.

This article originally appeared in Grist bee https://grist.org/accountability/bottled-water-microplastics-natural-evian-poland-spring-arrowhead-crystal-geyser-fiji-lawsuit/.

Grist is an independent, nonprofit media organization dedicated to telling stories about climate solutions and an equitable future. More information at Grist.org

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