More About Bottled Water*
Springtime for Poland

by Roger Parloff

If you've had a sip of Poland Spring Natural Spring Water over the past seven years, then you, like me, are a plaintiff in a class-action suit that recently settled. (Congratulations!) If you have Poland Spring delivered to your home, the company sent you a letter saying not to worry, all parties now agree that Poland Spring is natural spring water after all. The settlement is pretty standard: next to undetectable benefits for us, some discount coupons and whatnot, and $1.35 million in cash for the plaintiffs attorneys.

Reassuring though it was, the letter was not, strictly speaking, accurate. The settling plaintiffs lawyer did not actually concede that Poland Spring Natural Spring Water was spring water. He agreed, rather, to stop challenging that labeling. In fact, based on the evidence presented to the judge who approved the settlement, the most anyone can confidently say about Poland Spring, the nation's leading brand of spring water, is that geologists disagree about whether it's spring water.

You may think that spring water is water that springs from the ground. But a company like Poland Spring, which sold 380 million gallons in 2002, can't dip each plastic bottle it sells into some spring-fed brook. Nor should it. Once spring water reaches the surface, it becomes what hydrogeologists call, logically enough, surface water. Surface water is not pristine. Dead leaves fall in it. Bugs swim in it. (See We Can Live With Much Less Plastic.)

What we really want to drink is spring water moments before it's sprung. The old way to capture pre-sprung spring water was to build a box, or catchments, into the ground around the mouth of the spring. A better and safer way, many moderns contend, is to drill a borehole and tap into the groundwater as it's still flowing toward the spring mouth, capturing the water far from the contaminants of the earth's surface.

There's a catch, though. If you use a borehole, the spring water is so deep underground when you capture it, maybe 50 to 70 feet, that you'll need a pump to get it to the surface. Using a pump is fine, say purists, except then you're really selling well water. It may taste great and be perfectly healthy, but it doesn't happen to be "spring" water, as they see it. How, such purists wonder, does the bottler know he's even pumping the same water that goes to the spring?

In 1995 the Food and Drug Administration ruled that water extracted from boreholes could be called "spring water." But it required bottlers to be able to demonstrate that there was a "hydraulic connection" between the water coming from the borehole and the water coming from the spring.

Last year an assortment of people with gripes and suspicions about Poland Spring and its gigantic corporate parent, Nestle SA, began venting to a plaintiffs lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann. He was the subject of Jonathan Harr's 1995 bestseller, A Civil Action (John Travolta played him in the movie), which chronicled his claim that well water in Woburn, Mass., had been contaminated by toxic dumping, causing town residents to come down with leukemia. But while the alleged injury in Woburn was cancer, the alleged injury at Poland Spring is, what exactly? If borehole water is the same as spring water, who cares if it actually would have flowed out of the spring? Answer: Purists do. Borehole drilling can foul the environment, they say, and pumps can draw in contaminated water. In any case, if a marketer claims to be selling spring water, the product has to be spring water.

Poland Spring water goes all the way back to 1845, when a legend arose that water from springs near Poland, Maine, 25 miles north of Portland, had miraculous medicinal properties. A spa was built. Over the years Ulysses Grant, William Howard Taft, Mae West, and Babe Ruth stayed at its 300-room hotel. Then taking the waters fell out of fashion, and for a generation people drank martinis.

In the mid-1970s, Perrier launched a massive marketing campaign to get Americans drinking water again. In 1980 it bought the small, bankrupt company that was then bottling water at Poland Spring. In 1992, Perrier was acquired by Nestle.

When Perrier took over the Poland Spring site, it was drawing water not from the original spring at the top of Ricker Hill but from boreholes a couple of thousand feet away, near a pond at the base of the hill. It continued to call its product "natural spring water" on the assumption that the pond was fed by underwater springs and that the boreholes were tapping into that source.

In 1992, as Poland Spring extended its markets, state regulators from Georgia pressed for more proof that it was really spring water. Hired by Poland Spring, six geologists in scuba gear swam to the bottom of the pond, documenting changes in rock cover that, they said, showed where sub aqueous springs were venting. They drove pipes and gauges into the bottom of the pond to measure upward pressure and take groundwater samples.

Yep, they concluded. There were springs down there, they were hydraulically linked to the borehole, and the water from each was chemically equivalent. Georgia was happy, and Poland Spring continued to market "spring water."

As demand bloomed, Poland Spring drilled boreholes at three more (alleged) spring sources: Garden Spring, about five miles from Poland Spring; Hollis, about 29 miles away; and Fryeburg, about 31 miles away. Poland Spring also stepped on toes. Small spring owners found it hard to compete. Some hoped to sell their operations to Nestle but were rebuffed.

Drink When Thirsty, But Hold The Salt
By Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON - Americans can let thirst be their guide in drinking but need to cut way back on salt, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

An obsession with "hydration" may have spawned an entire industry of little water bottles, water bottle holders and regular drink breaks at gyms, but most people get plenty of fluids, the Institute of Medicine panel said.

But nearly all U.S. and Canadian adults get far more salt than recommended, and too little potassium, the panel of experts said.

The Institute, an independent body that advises the federal government on health matters, set general recommendations for water intake based on dozens of studies that show women need about 91 ounces on average of water a day and men need 125 ounces.

Food, coffee and even beer or other drinks all contribute, so it is impossible to say how many glasses of plain water someone should drink, the panel said. Only those who are very physically active or who live in hot climates may need to drink more water, the researchers said.

"While drinking water is a frequent choice for hydration, people also get water from juice, milk, coffee, tea, soda, fruits, vegetables, and other foods and beverages as well," Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and chairman of the panel, said in a statement.

"Moreover, we concluded that on a daily basis, people get adequate amounts of water from normal drinking behavior -- consumption of beverages at meals and in other social situations -- and by letting their thirst guide them."

But the panel said most North Americans eat far too much salt, much of it in processed foods.

Healthy 19- to 50-year-old adults should consume 3.8 grams of salt a day. Any more can, in some people, lead to high blood pressure, which in turn causes stroke, heart and kidney disease.

The panel of advisers, which included experts on nutrition, pediatrics, geriatrics and other areas, said the most salt anyone should eat a day is 5.8 grams.

Almost everyone gets more than this -- U.S. men's median intake of salt is between 7.8 and 11.8 grams per day, and women take in between 5.8 and 7.8 grams every day, the panel found.

Canadian adults consume between 5.1 and 9.7 grams a day.

"Older individuals, African Americans, and people with chronic diseases including hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disease are especially sensitive to the blood pressure-raising effects of salt and should consume less than the upper limit," the panel said in a statement.

It said more than 95 percent of American and 75 percent of American women get more than this.

And Americans get far too little potassium every day -- adding to their risk of high blood pressure and bone loss, the panel found.

It said adults should consume 4.7 grams of potassium per day but most American women 31 to 50 years old consume no more than half this. Canadians typically get more potassium, which is found in fresh fruits and vegetables.

The typical Western diet is high in salt and low in potassium -- just the opposite of scientific studies have shown is needed for good health, the panel said.

"Research is needed to find ways to help people select better food choices to reduce their salt intake and boost their potassium consumption," Appel said.

The panel recommended that researchers help food processors develop better ways of making food that is low in salt. See Health Benefits of Water. --


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  *Consultation with a health care professional should occur before applying adjustments or treatments to the body, consuming medications or nutritional supplements and before dieting, fasting or exercising. None of these activities are herein presented as substitutes for competent medical treatment.