If you’re an avid Bubly, Topo Chino, Polar, La Croix, Polar, or Perrier drinker, you’re definitely going to want to keep reading. But really, this information is for anyone who drinks tap water too.
I’m laying out the findings of a 2020 Consumer Reports test of 47 bottled waters to find out if they’re safe to drink. It included 35 noncarbonated and 12 carbonated ones for the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, plus 30 PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
For this article, I’m focusing on the carbonated water and PFAS findings specifically. Because this is a problem that is concerning not just for these products, but for drinking water across the continent.
If you prefer to listen, you can tune into the podcast version of this article on Episode 58 of The Missing Pillar of Health Podcast, or below.
What Are PFAS?
There are approximately 5,000 known per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) , and they are used to make non-stick coatings, stain-repellant, waterproofing coatings, fire fighting foam, and more – and they have become a serious problem.
These are a collection of chemicals known for their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, which means they don’t break down in the environment. Our general understanding of these chemicals are based around the research on two of the most widespread chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.
Due to their widespread ecological and health impacts, these two chemicals specifically are no longer being manufactured in North America and have been replaced with other PFAS chemicals without as much data behind them, yet they continue to contaminate water supplies.
Are PFAS Regulated?
Short answer, no. But there are different jurisdictions with recommended limits. I’m going to get into some numbers here, but stick with me because this is important. As you’ll see, the limits vary widely.
For context, 1ppt would be about 1 grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The EPA currently has an advisory recommendation (meaning not enforceable) of 70 ppt for only PFOA and PFOS, individually and combined.
However, a 2019 study commissioned by the EPA found 17 PFAS chemicals in both the source and treated water from 25 drinking water treatment plants across the United States. PFAS were detected in all samples, with total PFAS concentrations ranging from <1 ppt to 1102 ppt.
International Bottled Water Association
The industry group International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) requires its members to have any single PFAS compound concentration below 5 ppt, and total PFAS below 10 ppt.
In July 2021, the California EPA issued a draft report with a proposed safe level to support public health of 0.007 part per trillion (or 7 pp quadrillion) for PFOA and 1 ppt for PFOS in drinking water.
The Environmental Working Group suggests a limit of 1ppt based on a collection of studies.
One of those is from a 2013 study showing decreased vaccine response in children with higher levels of PFOA and PFOS in their bodies. The authors recommended a limit of 1 ppt in water for PFOA or PFOS based on the findings.
In their study review, the EWG also found that drinking water concentration of PFAS chemicals at or near 1 ppt would prevent increased risk of cholesterol and liver and testicular cancers.
Researchers at the nonprofit organization Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) proposed a maximum drinking water limit of 2 ppt for the combined concentrations of 4 PFAS chemicals, and 5 ppt for GenX – the replacement to PFOA.
This 2 ppt concentration limit is based on the most common detection limits reported by commercial laboratories that test water for PFAS. NRDC’s report notes that carbon filtration can remove these chemicals to levels lower than the detection limit of 2 ppt.
What did the Consumer Reports study find about PFAS in sparkling water?
The tests looked at 12 brands:
- All were in compliance with the IBWA limits
- 5 were less than 1ppt
– Sparkling Ice
- 7 exceeded the health-protective limit of 1ppt of total PFAS levels:
– Topo Chico
– Poland Spring
– Canada Dry
– La Croix
Topo Chico, made by Coca Cola, measured levels of 9.76 parts per trillion (ppt), making it the highest of the products tested.
It’s important to note that one product from each brand was tested, other flavours could impact test results.
Most of the brands that exceeded the 1ppt concentration responded to the Consumer Report findings with statements like “These products meet all FDA requirements and are fully compliant with FDA standards.” Typical playbook replies that pass the buck on any responsibility to the environment or customers.
In contrast, Topo Chico said that it would “continue to make improvements to prepare for more stringent standards in the future.”
Sure enough, in February of 2021 Consumer Reports tested 3 new samples of Topo Chico and found that the brand had reduced its average level of PFAS to 3.9 ppt.
This moved the brand to 2nd highest based on the initial Consumer Reports tests. According to the updated article, Toco Chico upgraded its filtration system.
Where did the contamination come from?
There are a few possibilities: it could come from equipment in the carbonation process, the source water is contaminated, or treatment used doesn’t remove PFAS to below 1 part per trillion.
But many brands did have levels less than 1ppt, so it is possible.
Making health-protective limits enforceable is easier said than done.
To set an enforceable limit, the EPA must go through a series of legal steps that have been established to regulate contaminants in drinking water.
Despite there being no federal legal limits in the US, some states are setting their own for these chemicals, many of which are lower than the EPA’s advisory level of 70 ppt but still not as low as the 1ppt suggested for health protection.
One major roadblock is that the cost of filtering the chemicals out of tap water may be prohibitive for some utilities, resulting in a higher allowable limit than the science suggests is safe.
Stricter limits could also require sewage-treatment facilities to filter out PFOA and PFOS before they discharge treated wastewater into rivers or lakes.
And, as is the case with many chemicals, there are powerful lobby groups for industries that would face significant liability for clean up that are working to oppose regulation of PFAS as a group. This means regulations would have to study each individual chemical separately, resulting in decades long delays.
Canada is currently evaluating next steps to regulate PFAS chemicals as a class rather than individually. The Canadian drinking water guideline has a maximum acceptable concentration significantly higher than the EPA and health-protective levels recommended by others – and similarly, it is not a legally binding limit.
More action is happening in the US because of the widespread water contamination from military bases in particular, due to fire fighting foam. In October, 2021, the EPA announced PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and PFBS would be added to the hazardous waste regulations, requiring more strict cleanup.
What Can You Do As a Consumer?
It’s my hope that the burden shifts from the consumer to the producer.
We should not be on the hook for dealing with contamination of our food supply. And to be clear, the real problem lies with companies like Dupont who manufacture PFAS in the first place, and have been found negligent and partially responsible for the widespread contamination we now face.
That being said, one simple shift we can make is to not buy so much single-serving carbonated beverages. These have become a staple in many homes, and the waste and cost alone are factors to rethink this habit. PFAS exposure adds some icing on the cake.
You can make your own carbonated water easily at home.
Soda Stream currently has one model that uses a glass carafe and they have a collaboration with Bubly so you can add your favourite Bubly flavours to carbonated water you make yourself (both of these brands are owned by PepsiCo).
Now the ingredients in these flavours aren’t disclosed so I’d opt for a natural fruit juice or simple lemon or lime but if you’re solidly addicted to Bubly, take it in baby steps with the home-made version.
If you have PFAS in your drinking water (you can test and check the EWG for a map of areas of concern in the US), a granulated activated carbon water filter will reduce PFAS and a reverse osmosis system will remove almost all.
There’s a certification NSF P473 that demonstrates the system was tested for their claims against PFOA and PFOS. This isn’t the only thing to look for, but if PFAS is a concern it could be important for you.
Episode 16 on the Missing Pillar of Health Podcast walks you through how to choose the right water filter and I have a detailed Step by Step Guide to Choosing a Water Filter with brand suggestions and instructions on testing your water.
Knowledge is power
Alright, that was a lot of info, I know. But you know me, I like to make sure you have all the background to really understand an issue! Knowledge is power, and I hope this has armed you with the knowledge you need to make more informed decisions about what you drink.