June 16, 2024

Is bottled water really “natural” if it is contaminated with microplastics? A series of lawsuits recently filed against six bottled water brands alleges that using labels such as “100 percent mountain spring water” and “natural spring water” is deceptive—not because of the water’s origin, but because it likely involves small plastic fragments are contaminated.

Reasonable consumers, according to the lawsuits, 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, and/or would not have paid a price premium” for bottled water if they had known it contained “dangerous substances,” it states the lawsuit filed against the bottled water company Poland Spring.

The six lawsuits target the companies that own Arrowhead, Crystal Geyser, Evian, Fiji, Ice Mountain and Poland Spring. They are variously seeking damages for lost money, wasted time and “stress, aggravation, frustration, loss of confidence, loss of composure and loss of confidence in product labeling.”

Experts aren’t sure this is a winning legal strategy, but it’s a creative new approach for consumers hoping to protect themselves from the ubiquity of microplastics. Research over the past few years has identified these particles – fragments of plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter – just about everywhere, in nature and in people’s bodies. Studies have linked them to a variety of health issuesincluding heart disease, reproductive problems, metabolic disorder, and, in one 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 of Todd M. Friedman, a consumer protection and employment law firm with locations in California, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The sixth was filed by the firm of Ahdoot & Wolfson on behalf of a resident of New York.

Each lawsuit uses the same general argument to make its case, starting with research into the prevalence of microplastics in bottled water. Several of them quote a 2018 study from Orb Media and the State University of New York at Fredonia which found microplastic contamination in 93 percent of bottles tested across 11 brands in nine countries. In half of the brands tested, researchers found more than 1,000 pieces of microplastic per liter. (A standard bottle can hold about half a liter of water.) More recent research has found that typical water bottles have much higher levels: 240,000 particles per liter 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 craft water” (Fiji), “100 percent natural spring water” (Poland Spring), and “natural spring water” (Evian). The suit against Pole Spring cites a dictionary definition of natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by man.” 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 has “a longstanding policy” to consider the term to mean that a food is free of synthetic or artificial additives “that are not normally expected to be in that food.”

The lawsuit against Arrowhead bottled water, which is advertised as “100 percent mountain spring water,” argues that it is the “100 percent” that is deceptive. “Reasonable consumers do not understand the term ‘100 percent’ to mean ’99 percent,’ ’98 percent,’ ’97 percent,’ or any percentage other than ‘100 percent,'” the complaint states. In other words, consumers expect that 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 was “plausible” that people would expect bottled water labeled “natural” to not contain non-natural microplastics, but it was difficult to say without doing a survey. It will be up to judges to evaluate that argument — if the cases go to trial. One of the lawsuits filed by the firm Todd M. Friedman was against the company that owns Crystal Geyser withdrawn last month, possibly a sign that the parties have reached a settlement.

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

In response to Grist’s request for comment, Evian — which is 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 does not have regulations for nano- or issued microplastic particles. in food and beverage products.

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, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition, said the new lawsuits are part of a long-standing effort to hold bottled water companies accountable not only for microplastic pollution, but also for other misleading claims about their products’ purity. A 2017 lawsuit against Nestlé said its “Pure Life Purified” brand name and labels misrepresent the purity of its water, in violation of the California Legal Remedies Act. That case was dismissed in 2019 for a “failure to assert a cognizable legal theory”; the latest lawsuits’ “natural” claims represent a different tactic.

Rows of Evian bottled water on a table, with blurred plants in the background.  Labels say natural spring water.
Evian branded bottled water.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous legal challenges involved the origin of so-called “spring water”. In 2017, for example, a class action lawsuit against Nestlé Waters North America, which at the time owned Poland Spring, said the company was fooling customers into buying “ordinary groundwater.” A A US District Court judge dismissed that case in 2018 on the grounds that his allegations improperly cited violations of a state law, rather than a federal one. Nestlé has a similar lawsuit in 2003 for $10 millionalthough it denies that its practices were fraudulent.

More recent lawsuits have targeted bottled water companies’ claims that their products “carbon 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 evaluated by a judge, although s 2021 Complaint Against Niagara Bottling over “100 percent recyclable” labels were thrown out by a US District Court judge in New York the following year.

According to Smith, one obstacle to these lawsuits is that they can only cite research on the microplastics. potential to damage people’s health, rather than actual harm they suffered from drinking contaminated bottled water. Even if the plaintiffs did have 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.

“This is a larger systemic problem with our entire food and beverage supply,” Cirino said.

Keeping microplastics out of people’s bodies will require a similar systemic approach, possibly involving government rules and incentives for companies to replace single-use plastics with reusable products made from glass and aluminum – as well as an overall reduction in the amount of plastic entering the make world Meanwhile, one recent article in The Dieline has the idea of to put microplastic warning labels on plastic water bottles.

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

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