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How safe is the packaged water?

10,July, 2017

Quality check: Packaged water samples taken at random are periodically tested at designated laboratories.

Experts say the government has not come forward to regulate packaging units


A new fleet of carriers has merged with city transport, often being the cause of traffic bottlenecks. Rickety lorries carry drinking water to the interiors of Madurai. Vehicles with stainless steel tankers distribute ‘mineral water’ on order.

Packaged water is transported in a hurry in bubble top containers. People no more believe that they can get daily supply of potable water at their homes.

Ironically, this has happened this summer in a city which was found to indulge in frugal use of water by a 2005 study of Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The TISS study found that a Madurai household consumed a minimum of 370.9 litres of water a day, against the average of 408.6 litres.

Successive monsoon failure, depleting storage in Vaigai dam and reduction of the Vaigai into a flood carrier have narrowed down the choice of source to the ground. Surface water has become a luxury in a city where only waste water flows on the surface in many places.

Water packaging units have multiplied with most of them choosing villages like Manthikulam, Kathakinaru, Keezhamathur, Melakkal, Kallandiri, Poigaikkaraipatti and Sembianendal Vilakku to source water. A family of four consumes one water can of 18-litre capacity in two days on normal days and one can a day in summer.

“The government has not even thought of providing quality water free or at subsidised rates. It has not come forward to regulate packaging units. Packaged water has entered all households, irrespective of the stratum, today,” says R. Murali, former Principal, The Madura College.

A. Kodiswaran, a water vendor in Ayyavu Thevar Nagar, raises doubts over the quality of water supplied in tankers. How many times do they clean the container before filling it daily? Even in the case of non-branded water supplied in containers, he says his customers want the processing units to be regulated. The government should fix a standard price and ensure that they supply hygienic water.

The Bureau of Indian Standards has prescribed two sets of standards for packaged water – IS: 13428 relates to mineral water, water drawn from a natural source and bottled without altering standard composition; and IS: 14543 is for bottled water with altered composition through any process of filtration and disinfection.

Generally, the process of reverse osmosis is employed to alter the composition of water. Big brands, researchers say, add minerals after processing water drawn from natural sources to retain their composition. “Branded water is by and large safe and does not contain any harmful chemicals or microbiological organisms during their shelf life,” says K. Ramesh, water analyst.

But the RO process, used by smaller units that sell water in bottles, cans and bubble tops, tends to bring down total dissolved solids (TDS) from the standard 500, points out S. Rajamohan, Managing Director, Enviro Care India, a laboratory for testing quality of food and water, accredited by National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories.

“The TDS in groundwater in many areas of Madurai is very high due absence of recharge and high atmospheric temperature. After RO process, it comes down considerably. In a particular case, the TDS was 163. This has an adverse impact on one’s immune system,” cautions Mr. Rajamohan.

The Bureau of Indian Standards and Department of Food Safety and Drug Administration undertake periodic collection of drinking water available in the market at random. These samples are subjected to tests for their physical and chemical properties and presence of heavy metals, pesticides and microbiological organisms.

The unit’s licence is suspended if any deviations are detected. What is of concern is the presence of micro organisms, which is a reflection of compromise on safety standards at the filling area of packaging units. Another area of concern is the absence of expiry date in many containers.

“We do not look at the expiry date of water bottles bought from shops on highways,” says Mr. Rajamohan.

“The containers look ugly and we do not know whether they are washed before water is filled. There is also the menace of plastic bottles getting littered. The government should nationalise water business, scientifically process water, standardise prices and eliminate plastic containers. Simultaneously, existing water sources should be protected,” says Mr. Murali.

What is the way out? The best way is to use water available at home. “Consume water supplied by the civic body or drawn from the bore well at home after boiling and filtering it,” says Mr. Rajamohan.

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