Editor’s Note: This is the third part of a four-part series on the safety of drinking water in Kyiv. The final part on how to make the best choice of water will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Kyiv Post.
Most people assume that bottled water is safer than tap water, especially in Ukraine. While that is generally the case, the water from the office cooler is not as pure as many think. In fact, experts say many brands can eventually pose harm to a person’s health.
The Kyiv Post discovered that only four out of the 14 biggest bottled water brands in Kyiv met all sanitary rules and norms set for the quality of drinking water. They are Etalon, Alaska, Zhyvoi Istochnik and Slobidska. The rest failed key tests.
The good news, however, is that health experts say that short-term consumption of water with the levels of impurities found by the Kyiv Post is not life-threatening and not enough to sicken a person. Concern, however, remains over possible long-term effects.
Several producers whose water did not score well denied the validity of the Kyiv Post’s findings, which were conducted by independent laboratories.
The survey of bottled water is the third part of a Kyiv Post series this year on the quality of drinking water in Kyiv.
Part one was dedicated to the tap water that comes to most homes from the Kyiv public water utility. Samples tested turned out to have excess level of chlorine. Byproducts of chlorine may cause cancer, so consumers are advised to clean tap water with a coal filter.
Part two examined the water from aquifers that two hundred hand pumps in Kyiv deliver every day to consumers. That water was generally found to be of high quality. But the Kyiv Post also found that city authorities do not take care of the pumps adequately; some of them are contaminated with iron and hydrogen sulfide. And well test results varied: Water from the well at the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves was good, for instance, but water in the well near Vydubytsky monastery had too many salts.
For the third part of the series on bottled water, the Kyiv Post ordered a blind test of the top 14 companies that produce, sell and deliver drinking water in 18.9 liter bottles, the size commonly sold for Kyiv offices and homes. The list of top producers was compiled by the Bottled Water Association of Ukraine.
The independent testing was conducted by three certified laboratories. It showed that the most expensive water may not be the best. Even paying Hr 40 on average for a bottle of water, consumers cannot be assured of getting top-quality water.
Bacteria count high in many brands tested
The results of microbiological tests conducted on March 26-27 showed excessive amounts of bacteria in half of the tested samples. In some of them, the level of bacteria was so high that laboratory workers were not able to measure them.
After an initial round of tests, producers who didn’t score high complained that the water samples were collected by journalists and not specialists. So, on June 22, the Kyiv Post ordered additional tests at another laboratory and asked laboratory workers to withdraw the samples themselves. The second tests showed that only two water producers improved their results. One brand showed a worse result, while five had the same negative findings.
“It does not mean that this water can cause food poisoning,” said Anna Moskalenko, junior research fellow at the laboratory of the Marzeyev Institute of Hygiene and Medical Ecology, which did the first microbiological testing. “But waste products of bacteria are toxic and may cause premature aging and chronic fatigue syndrome and other diseases if such water is drunk regularly.”
Natalia Protsan, deputy head of the laboratory at Kyiv’s Institute of Alcohol and Biotechnology of Food Products, which performed the second round of tests, also explained possible long-term risks. “Water with a high level of bacteria may cause dysbiosis and malaise if a person’s immunity is low,” Protsan said. “It may also raise the temperature of small children.”
Valeria Zubkova, director at Nebesna Krynytsia, one of the bottled water brands tested, dismissed the findings. “We are confident in the best quality of our water and control it regularly,” Zubkova said.
Chemical tests show manganese, fluorides
Results of the chemical test, conducted on March 26-27 by the laboratory of the National Technical University of Ukraine, revealed that in three water brands — EKO, Vodograi and Feofanivska — the levels of manganese exceeded the legal limit.
According to Anna Tsvetkova, the water and sanitation program coordinator at MAMA-86, regular drinking of water with excess levels of manganese can cause impotence and have a bad effect on memory and the central nervous system.
The level of manganese is regulated for bottled water, while a higher level of this chemical is allowed in tap water until 2020. Bottled water scored much better than tap water on Kyiv’s right bank of the Dnipro River; tests showed a much higher level of manganese in the tap water withdrawn by the Kyiv Post.
Producers of these brands say their bottled water is pure and safe.
One of the brands tested, Stary Myrhorod, had levels of fluorides above the legal limit. Biologist Tsvetkova said the problem can lead to cavities and osteoporosis if such water is drunk regularly.
Oleksiy Vinichenko, head of the marketing department at IDS Aqua Service, which produces Stary Myrhorod and Alaska water brands, dismissed the result as part of the 10 percent “standard error which exists during such studies.” Vinichenko is confident that the firm’s water products meet all legal standards and he said the company is ready to defend this position in courts.
Apart from required norms, the Health Ministry also issues recommendations, one of which is to drink water with a balanced composition of salts.
According to those recommendations, total hardness, one of the most important parameters for physiologically sound water, for instance, should vary between 1.5 and 7 mmol per cubic decimeter. But only five water brands out of 14 tested managed to match this recommendation. Total hardness of the rest of brands, in most cases, was much lower than this level, showing inadequate salts.
Only one brand tested, Rajske Dzherelo, was able to match all requirements to the physiologically sound water. This water, however, failed the microbiological test – a finding the producer said was inaccurate.
Debate over reverse osmosis technology
The reason why those producers were not able to meet those recommendations is because most of them use deep-water treatment technologies such as reverse osmosis. This relatively cheap technology is based on a special membrane which cleans water on a molecular level and removes everything – the bad as well as the good, including useful levels of salts.
“In America most people consume water which is cleaned with the help of a reverse osmosis plant,” said Ihor Pastukh, president of Ukraine’s Bottled Water Association. “While in Europe the most appreciated is water from artesian wells in which the initial composition is not changed except for mechanical purification.”
Ukrainian experts don’t recommend reverse osmosis, a membrane-technology filtration system, because it produces water that is unnaturally pure.
“It is better to drink natural water or water purified in natural way,” said Kostiantyn Zahorodniuk, an assistant professor at the Bogomolets National Medical University. “I would not drink water cleaned with the help of reverse osmosis.”
Vladyslav Honcharuk, director at the Institute of Colloid and Water Chemistry in Kyiv, is even more critical.
“In distilled water there is no life. It is dead water in a direct and figurative sense,” underscored Honcharuk. He added also that water purified with the help of reverse osmosis removes calcium from the body. “The spine becomes very fragile and unstable,” Honcharuk said. “Such water is especially dangerous for children whose bones are not formed yet.”
However, producers say the reverse osmosis technology is the best one and is widely used in many countries.
“Reverse osmosis is the most progressive method used in the world. This system allows for removing all contaminations and keeping enough minerals,” responded Valeria Zubkova, director at Nebesna Krynytsia. Her company uses this technology, as do many producers tested by the Kyiv Post.
Consumers don’t have enough information
During its research, the Kyiv Post found out that consumers often don’t know what exactly runs from their cooler or what is in the water they buy in a bottle.
The Kyiv Post has sent scanned copies of labels from all 14 producers test for analysis by the Arzinger law firm. Lawyers concluded that the labels of only two water brands, Alaska and Stary Myrhorod, met all legal requirements. Labels of other producers did not contain complete product information, such as the number and location of the artesian well, water composition and parameters of physiologically sound water.
Most producers replied that the Kyiv Post obtained bottles with outdated labels, while newer ones are being phased in.
“It is just an excuse,” said Nadiia Karlash, an Arzinger associate. “Producers had enough time to adjust, taking into account that the relevant norm took effect almost two years ago.”
When the Kyiv Post ordered bottles of water the second time, it revealed that two producers – Pan Vodny and Feofanivska – did not list the date when the water was produced or the expiration date for consumption.
Light penalties criticized
Karlash from Arzinger said, that according to Ukrainian legislation, substandard products should be confiscated if they do not match current regulations, are wrongly labeled or do not match legal requirements to the quality of water. Production should be stopped until the problem is solved. If any of the violations are confirmed, the producer has to pay a fine equal to 50 percent of the price of the consignment, but not less than Hr 170. Fines of up to Hr 425 are called for involving violations of the sanitary legislation.
“Legal responsibility is insignificant. That’s why producers are not afraid, while authorities often close their eyes on such violations,” Karlash said.
The Kyiv Sanitary-Epidemiological Service, responsible for the control of the quality of drinking water, said there is no point in talking about credibility of the Kyiv Post test results because water sampling was not conducted by specialists of the Kyiv sanitary service.
Consumers get little help
Consumers will have to mainly rely only on themselves when choosing their bottled water.
Here are some tips, however, for making the best choice:
The Health Ministry recommends drinking bottled water from artesian wells, not from tap water. So check the label on the bottle or producer’s website to find the number and location of well. If there is no such information it is very likely that this water is not from a well.
Pay attention to the technology used in water purification. Producers are not obliged to put this information on the label, which is why checking their website or calling their office is helpful. Depending on the technology which is used by producers, the water can be natural or treated.
According to the Ukrainian sanitary legislation, water can be called natural only if it is taken from aquifers and is cleaned with the help of mechanical filters, such as sand or ceramic filters, for example.
If a producer uses reverse osmosis technology or different types of filters which reduce the hardness of water or remove iron and other chemicals, or if ultraviolet or ozone is used to disinfect the water, then such water cannot be called natural. It is treated water. According to this definition, none of the water brands tested by the Kyiv Post provide consumers with natural water.
Less-treated water is closer to natural water.
Choose physiologically sound water. Total hardness of such water should be between 1.5 and 7 mmol per cubic decimeter. For making tea or coffee or cooking choose water with a total harness not more than three millimoles per cubic decimeter otherwise their might be residue left.
Order water in polycarbonate bottles because PET bottles affect the composition of water.
Remember also that the Health Ministry does not recommend water with artificial mineralization and water stored in 18.9 liter bottles for children up to three years old. Artificial mineralization increases toxicity of water, experts say, while 18.9 liter bottles are often left open for more than 24 hours, which may be enough for bacteria to start breeding. Therefore, children should drink water in bottles not more than one liter, the quantity a child is supposed to drink per day.
This project was funded by SCOOP, an international network of investigative journalists that receives funding from the Danish government. More information is available at i-scoop.org.
Part 1: What’s In Your Water? (May 25)
Part 2: Pumping deep for a cool drink (June 1)
Part 4: Which water to drink (July 20)