NEWS

Tests on 103 bottles showed that 6 pct were contaminated

Mineral water, both non-carbonated and fizzy, special kinds of water, brand names and fancy bottling have all become much more expensive. Sales of mineral water rose to 33 billion drachmas in 2001, nearly three times above the figure of 11.5 billion drachmas in 1993. The price increase of ordinary table water (of no special chemical composition) was even higher. Sales of the latter skyrocketed from 1.2 billion drachmas in 1993 to 9.3 billion in 2001. The National Statistics Service (NSS) shows that in 1981, production of bottled water totaled just over 40 million liters. In 1993, sales had already risen to about 278 million liters and in 2001 they reached 594 million liters. Sales of non-mineral water were even higher, jumping from 20 million liters in 1993 to 49 million in 2001. As for the average price per liter, according to the NSS, the wholesale price rose from 41.3 drachmas in 1993 to 55.8 drachmas in 2001. Consumer goods have always been rife with profiteering, particularly after the introduction of the euro, when the half-liter bottle rose from 100 drachmas to almost one euro (that is over three times more). How justified is this increased consumption and excessive pricing? Is the quality of bottled water so much better? «There have been many complaints from consumers about the quality of bottled water,» said Haralambos Kouris, president of the Consumer Institute (INKA). «In fact, it shouldn’t cost so much except for in regions where there are problems with the water quality. «As for Attica, there is nothing wrong with the mains water, which is just as good or better than most bottled water according to a comparative survey we carried out at INKA.» A number of factors have led to concerns regarding the quality of many brands of bottled water. First of all, a recent study by EFET of 103 bottles of water showed that 6 percent of these had increased concentrations of bacteria or dangerous microorganisms, while 11.3 percent did not correspond with what was written on the label. That is, they were not of the quality which they were alleged to be. Six percent is an unacceptably high figure and requires the immediate intervention of the State. EFET is to examine another 400 bottles over the next few months, which will provide a clearer picture of the situation. Distribution and trade The biggest problem is in the distribution and sale of bottled water. «It is not treated throughout the process as a product requiring refrigeration,» said Kouris. Often crates of bottled water are left standing in the sun, are jostled about or thrown down. In most supermarkets, bottled water is not kept in refrigerators. Under circumstances such as these, even the best bottled water can be more dangerous than mains water, which is flowing continuously. Distribution is the biggest problem, according to Christos Apostolopoulos, general director of the relevant EFET department. «The safety regulations are not always adhered to, unfortunately,» he said. Considerable problems also arise in the production phase. A recent study by the University of Crete showed that there are concentrations of very hazardous substances such as chlorine ions, by-products of chlorine dioxide disinfectants. Many bottling firms have not restricted themselves to the legal European limits for hazardous ions in their products, which is 25 ppb (millionth of a gram per liter). Hazardous ions are very dangerous, and can even be carcinogenic. Insufficient inspections It appears that the inspections of these products are also insufficient, whereas with such an important item they should be more or less continual. The physical and chemical properties of bottled water (salts, trace elements, for example), are certified by the State Chemistry Laboratory, but inspections are not regular. Quality can be changed. Spring water is checked by the Institute of Geological and Mining Exploration (IGME) but even there, visits are infrequent after the initial inspection, and there are very few inspections at bottling plants. Yet at the most crucial stage of inspection, the level of distribution and sales, the situation is also problematic. EFET’s 80 inspectors have to cover all food and drink products around the entire country. On the other hand, inspections of the water mains network are more regular than within the bottling network. So why should people buy an expensive product whose quality does not justify its price? At first people were forced to buy bottled water, and then they began to take it for granted. There has been an enormous change in habits and lifestyles, boosted by covert propaganda campaigns to convince people that mains water is not safe. In all public places and while traveling, it is more and more difficult to find drinking fountains or water coolers. Drinking fountains, for example, used to be gathering places where people could quench their thirst, and stop for a break. Nowadays, in the concrete jungle known as Athens, it is impossible to find such a place. On passenger ships, a ministerial decision was needed for a simple water cooler to be installed. Not automatic In most restaurants these days, when customers ask for water they are given bottled water and a person is considered a nuisance if he or she asks for tap water. Often bottled water is put on the table even if it hasn’t been asked for, along with the cutlery and breadbasket. «We have sent out a circular pointing out that bottled water is not part of the cover charge,» said Kouris, «and that no one should be required to to pay for it.» Yet many people are too shy to ask for it to be taken away and often are charged 2-3 euros for the bottle. Increased consumption has also led to increased litter from the discarded plastic bottles. Glass bottles are of course preferable as containers of water, but not from the promotional point of view. Bottled water, particularly that which has particular properties (minerals) meets certain needs, as does plain bottled water. But perhaps the time has come to set limits to the colonization of the market – and to the profiteering.