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Water, water, everywhere

Most people blame contaminated food for their upset stomach but the culprit could be the water they drink, even if it is signed, sealed and delivered

WEL Fare, Crocodile Pure and Elvis are just three names among the 480 enterprises that produce drinking water in Cambodia, according to National Standards officials who acknowledge that over 90 per cent of these companies are not certified by food safety inspections.

“We examine products to ensure they meet the standard for public health,” says Chen Seng Heang, 41, deputy director general of the Institute of Standards of Cambodia, which provides food safety certification – for a fee – permitting companies to place the ISC symbol on their products if they pass a series of standards tests. Formerly known as the Department of Industrial Standards, the ISC was created in 2008 and falls under the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.

Bottled water is one of many food commodities that ISC certifies in the Kingdom, including both domestic products and imports, yet according to Seng Chhang, 46, director of the Certification Department, people pay more attention to the merchandise they buy rather than what they are eating or drinking.

“If you buy a pair of earphones and one side does not work, you can just throw them away. But if you buy bad water, it’s going to affect your health. Maybe even your family’s health. People know there are dangers but yet they still overlook food safety,” he explains, acknowledging that many people are not aware of the ISC certification logo.

Industrial standards certification, in principal, is an advantage for public health initiatives in Cambodia. Companies must allow ISC inspectors to access their bottling plants on a routine basis and a number of factors are examined, including the condition of machinery and equipment, logs that indicate proper maintenance and cleaning, as well as general hygiene. Water samples are also forwarded by the ISC to the Industrial Laboratory Centre of Cambodia, a new site that meets international standards for microbiological and chemical examination.  

“If we find any sign of pathogenic micro-organisms [coliform and E. coli] they fail testing,” explains Seng Chhang, who says that environmental factors explain most of the failed tests. As one of the worst examples he has seen, Seng Chhang says that some inspections have found holes in the ceiling above areas where bottles were filled. He also says that companies have failed because there was improper ventilation, instances where workers were not conforming to minimum hygiene standards, as well as sites where water was entering the market despite broken or insufficient filtration devices.

“Ultraviolet (UV) lamps are used to kill bacteria using radiation,” explains Seng Chhang. “But if the speed of the water [being processed] is too fast, if the pipe is too large or if the lamps are not replaced properly, the effectiveness of UV radiation is reduced.” He says other bottled water technology, such as the use of ozone, also requires maintenance and care to ensure micro-organisms are sufficiently killed.

Despite the certification program, however, officials acknowledge that the ISC label is no guarantee that the bottled water in your hands is 100 percent safe.

“So many [companies] are printing the label without authorisation from us,” explains Sam No, deputy director of certification, who adds that a new three-digit number is now being placed underneath the symbol, unique to each company and acting as a thumbprint. He says the new labels aim to prevent counterfeits, while also making it easier for officials to identify and track products. Revealing the complexity of the industry, Sam No says that some water companies in the Kingdom make three or four different brands of bottled water that originate from the same source.

Shedding further light on the mystery of bottled water, Seng Chhang says most companies in Phnom Penh take their water from the municipal water supply, where it is then subject to a variety of additional treatments such as carbon, manganese, anthracite or resin filters. As an employee at the ministry since 1994, Seng Chhang says he usually drinks boiled municipal water because he knows what he is getting. Cambodia has received international awards over the past few years for water management, such as the Stockholm Industry Water Award last year, given to the Water Supply Authority in Phnom Penh, as well as the Asian Development Bank Water Prize in 2004. While impressive, these awards do not authenticate superior water quality in Cambodia, but recognise achievements for improving public accessibility, administration and management for municipal water supplies.

Educating the public about the benefits of standardised testing remains a top priority for ISC, according to Seng Chhang, who says that cooperation between government bodies is essential because there are limited ways to enforce compliance with regulations. He says that the integrity of the system thus falls to consumers.

“The consumer is powerful. They must understand food safety and make wise decisions when they purchase water. This will help them stay on the safe side,” he says, adding that the plan is to produce TV commercials to inform the public if funding can be secured. Although the new ISC certification logo is a step in the right direction, the institute’s website has yet to publish details on the latest serial numbers. Reference material is also available at the ISC library – but for purchase only.

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