Bottled water manufactured by Whole Foods and sold in most of its U.S. stores and on Amazon contains potentially harmful levels of arsenic, according to new tests by Consumer Reports.
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.
Consumer Reports’ 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 James Dickerson, Ph.D., 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 CR and the Guardian US, the U.S. edition of the global news organization, launch a major project this week on the challenges of getting access to safe, clean, affordable water in this country. That includes how the bottled water that consumers sometimes resort to as alternatives to tap water is not only more expensive but also may not always be safer.
Starkey Spring Water is 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.
“I think the average consumer would be stunned to learn that they’re paying a lot of extra money for bottled water, thinking that it’s significantly safer than tap, and unknowingly getting potentially dangerous levels of arsenic,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization that has researched bottled water quality.
CR’s findings highlight inconsistencies with how water is regulated in the U.S. Research suggests that 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, apply only to tap water.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates municipal water in the U.S., allows states to set their own standards for tap water, as 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, 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.”
A spokesperson for the FDA 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 that “it is not possible to remove arsenic entirely from the environment or food supply.”
But many of the 45 brands of bottled water CR’s 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 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 from 10 ppb 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.“
Previous Starkey Recalls
Whole Foods introduced Starkey Spring Water in 2015, with chief operating officer A.C. 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 (PDF). The FDA noted the potential health risks of long-term consumption of bottled water containing arsenic — 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 report said.
Since then, the company’s own internal tests (PDF) continue to show arsenic levels at 8 to 9 ppb — lower than the levels CR found.
A law in California requires bottlers that sell in the state to provide consumers an easy-to-read report detailing the quality of their product on request. 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,” says the disclaimer in the Starkey Spring Water report. “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 warnings for bottled waters with arsenic levels above 5 ppb and below 10 ppb 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 5- to 6-point reduction in IQ, compared with those who lived in homes that had arsenic levels below 5 ppb.
And researchers at Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals 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 (PDF) to 5 ppb. The new limit goes into effect July 1, 2021.
Water with arsenic above 5 ppb shouldn’t be used for ‘drinking, cooking, mixing baby formula, or in other consumptive ways.’
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
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, as 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 because of 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.
‘Hardly What Shoppers Bargained For’
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 4 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.
What You Can Do
To find information about the amount of arsenic and other contaminants in a particular brand of bottled water, start by looking for the water quality test report from the company, detailing the results of its own testing. While there is no central repository of such reports, CR has gathered reports published through early 2019 for numerous brands.
You could also go to the company’s website to see whether it links directly to its own report. Or check the bottle’s label for contact information. Look for brands that report nondetectable levels of arsenic. But also make a point to review the entire report for other listed contaminants.
If you are interested in the quality of your tap water, you can check its quality by getting a copy of your local water utility’s annual report or by having your water tested.
And if you have high amounts of arsenic or other contaminants, you could use a water filter for your drinking water. Read more about CR’s water filter testing.
America’s Water Crisis
Consumer Reports has a long history of investigating America’s water. In 1974, we published a landmark three-part series (PDF) revealing that water purification systems in many communities had not kept pace with increasing levels of pollution and that many community water supplies might be contaminated. Our work helped lead to Congress enacting the Safe Drinking Water Act in December 1974.
More than 45 years later, America is still struggling with a dangerous divide between those who have access to safe and affordable drinking water and those who don’t. Communities of color often are affected disproportionately by this inequity. Consumer Reports remains committed to exposing the weaknesses in our country’s water system, including raising questions about Americans’ reliance on bottled water as an alternative — and the safety and sustainability implications of this dependence.
In addition to our ongoing investigations into bottled water, we are proud to be partnering with our readers and those of the Guardian US, another institution dedicated to journalism in the public interest, to test for dangerous contaminants in tap water samples from more than 100 communities around the country.
America’s Water Crisis is the name we are jointly giving to this project and the series of articles we co-publish on the major challenges many in the U.S. face getting access to safe, clean, and affordable water. We will share the results of our upcoming test findings with you. In the meantime, you can join our social media conversation around water under the hashtag #waterincrisis.
Chief Content Officer, Consumer Reports