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Explainer: Should people be worried about arsenic in bottled water?

Several batches of own-brand supermarket water were recalled in recent weeks due to arsenic levels.

Bottled water.
Bottled water.
Image: Shutterstock/yanik88

SEVERAL BATCHES OF bottled water were recently recalled from supermarkets in Ireland over illegal levels of arsenic.

Recalls were issued for different batches of own-brand supermarket bottled water due to “above normal levels” of arsenic on 27 July and 2 August by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). 

The batches recalled were from supermarkets such as SPAR, Londis, Aldi and Dunnes Stores. 

But just because the levels are above legal limits, does this make them unsafe?

Firstly, what is arsenic?

Arsenic is a chemical found in various aspects of the environment. It is naturally found at high levels in the groundwater of countries such as Argentina, India and the US. 

It is found in soil, water and almost all plant and animal tissue. It occurs naturally at low levels in many foods. 

Arsenic comes in two forms – it is highly toxic in its inorganic form but less harmful in its organic form. 

The FSAI has an information sheet about arsenic on its website. 

Should people be concerned if they drank the bottled water with illegal levels of arsenic?

A spokesperson for the FSAI said that people shouldn’t be concerned about the bottled water. 

“This recall is precautionary. The levels detected, whilst above the legal limit, are not considered to pose any short-term adverse health effects and the risk of any long-term health effect is unlikely,” the spokesperson said. 

“As this is an ongoing investigation by the FSAI and the HSE, no further comment can be provided at this time.”

What is the legal limit for arsenic levels in bottled water?

In the EU, the general limit for arsenic in food is 1 milligram per kilogram. However, the legal limit for water intended for human consumption is one millionth of a gram for every litre of water. 

This limit does not distinguish between inorganic and organic arsenic. Separate limits apply to certain food categories such as drinks, yeast and gelatin. 

EU-wide regulation on inorganic arsenic in rice was enacted in January 2016. 

How did more arsenic go into these batches of bottled water? 

All of the bottled water affected was produced by Monaghan company Celtic Pure. The arsenic levels increased in certain batches due to a mechanical failure of a filtration device at one of its springs. 

The FSAI recommended the removal of a number of batches of own-brand waters supplied by Celtic Pure. The issue has since been resolved, according to a statement from Celtic Pure. 

“This is a precautionary measure only and consumption of the product does not cause any immediate or on-going risk,” the statement said. 

No products in the Celtic Pure range were affected, only own-brand supermarket bottled water supplied by the company.  

“The quality team has taken immediate action and removed this device and source and we can confirm that this issue is now fully resolved,” the statement said. 

The FSAI has said that this recall is part of an ongoing investigation into Celtic Pure being undertaken by the FSAI and the HSE. 

What are the effects of consuming high levels of arsenic?

Exposure to inorganic arsenic over a long period of time can cause cancer, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Organic arsenic found in products such as seafood, is less harmful to health.

It is unclear whether the arsenic found in the bottled water was organic or inorganic. The EU limits for arsenic in water do not discern between the two. 

The immediate symptoms of arsenic poisoning include vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, according to the WHO. 

Effects of long-term exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic include skin pigmentation, hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet and skin lesions. 

These occur after a minimum exposure of around five years. They may be a precursor to skin cancer.

How does arsenic get into food and drinks in the first place?

Arsenic can enter the water supply from natural deposits in the earth or from industrial and agricultural pollution. 

It is widely believed that naturally occurring arsenic dissolves out of certain rock formations when ground water levels drop significantly,” said Anne Woods from Water Technology Limited, an Irish water testing company. 

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