Red flag over unsafe bottled water

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

Millions of Kenyans could be drinking contaminated bottled water unknowingly following revelations that 564 bottling firms suspended by Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) have defied the ban. Confirmation of the suspension come in the wake of a report last week that popular bottled water brands in the country are contaminated with plastic particles.

With research indicating most bottled water contains more than 90 per cent of micro-plastic particles, the safety of the packaged product remains a major public health concern.

The study, whose findings were released last week, was commissioned by journalism project Orb Media and analysed bottled water bought in Kenya, US, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Lebanon, Thailand and e-commerce platform Amazon.

According to Kebs, there are 600 licenced water bottling firms in the country, meaning only 65 (about nine per cent) have been cleared to operate after 564 were banned. In 2016, Kebs had blacklisted 368 illegal water-bottling companies but the number of those banned has soared to 564 this year.

Kebs managing director Charles Ongwae now says some of the suspended firms are still supplying bottled water to unsuspecting consumers, endangering lives. “We are enforcing standards through market surveillance in outlets and increasing awareness on our public notices and forums,” he said.

A spot check by the People Daily, meanwhile, reveals that large and small-scale retailers are still selling bottled water from some of the blacklisted companies. This blatant violation of the law puts the health of a big population at risk and also puts the Ministry of Health on the spot over its ineffectiveness in backing up the Kebs action.

The agency admits the increase in the number of water-bottling companies has become a challenge in its compliance enforcement efforts. Ongwae attributed thriving water-bottling business to low capital required in setting up the venture. The multi-million shilling business thrives mostly in major cities and urban centres where demand is high, thanks to a growing middle class.

In February, Nairobi County Environment Monitoring and Compliance Enforcement team arrested a woman bottling water in Embakasi East without a health certificate. “We suspect that bottling is done at night when chances of evading detection are higher,” said Ongwae.

He added that counterfeiting of popular brands by rogue firms using recycled or fake bottles is on the rise. Ongwae faulted the models of water distribution business, citing roadside hawking, direct consumption in eateries and public functions, making it difficult to arrest culprits.

“It is a contravention of the Standards Act to manufacture or offer for sale any product unless the product demonstrates conformity to respective standards by having a valid permit to use the standardisation mark as stipulated in law,” said Ongwae.

Kebs had earlier issued a short code number (20023) to members of the public, hoteliers, event organisers and Kenyans in general to confirm the validity of the standardisation mark by sending the brand name to the number.

A few years ago, bottled water was a status symbol of sorts but not anymore, with roadside products going for as low as Sh10 per a 250ml bottle. As water becomes a premium commodity, corporations are buying up groundwater and distribution rights whenever they can.

Last week, scientists based at the State University of New York in the US conducted tested samples of 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold.

Concentrations were as high as 10,000 plastic pieces for every litre. Of the 259 bottles tested, only 17 were free of plastics. Subsequently, the World Health Organisation has announced a review into the potential risks of plastic in drinking water.

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