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Bottled water: two out of three "unacceptable"

Bottled water: two out of three "unacceptable"

AT A recent Ministry of Environment conference, an official broke the seal of his

Eurotech water bottle, drank a glassful, then detected a strange taste. He discovered

to his horror that insects and larvae were floating in the bottle. "And this

was at the Ministry of Environment!" he exclaimed.

Although sick for two weeks, he continues to drink Eurotech water. "I'm sure

it was a fraudulent bottle," he said.

Unlicensed or poorly regulated bottled-water factories and unhygienic bottled water

are hallmarks of the bottled-water industry in Phnom Penh, according to Dr. Lim Thai

Pheang, Director of the Hygiene, Health Education and Primary Health Care Center

in the Ministry of Health.

Two out of three (68%) of the samples from the city's bottled-water factories were

"unacceptable," according to a Ministry of Health (MoH) survey conducted

last year. Seven per cent were "acceptable," while a quarter were "suspect."

Officials refused to name which factory falls under which category.

Inspectors found the following types of bacteria: Flore Totale Mesophile, Coliformes

Totaux, Fecal Coliformes, Fecal Streptococcus, Pathogenic Staphylococcus, Clostridium

Sulfio Reducteur and Samonella. These bacteria can cause diarrhea, dysentery and

hepatitis.

These findings mirror the results of a study completed by the Japan International

Volunteer Centre. Although officials cautioned that their study is not yet complete,

they found that "tap water is sometimes better than bottled water."

Not true, argued Ministry of Industry's (MoI) Chief Office of Technology official

Ping Sivlay. While he didn't deny the presence of bacteria in bottled water, he claimed

the MoH is exaggerating the problem. "The Ministry of Health used WHO [World

Health Organization] standards which are too strict for Cambodia," he said.

According to him, 80 per cent of the city's bottled-water factories are "acceptable."

He based this on MoI's quarterly monitoring of factories. Indeed, Sivlay believes

that MoI's lower standards - a combination of standards used in Malaysia, Singapore,

Russia, the Czech Republic, and Germany - are more appropriate for Cambodia than

the WHO's.

"WHO standards are internationally agreed-to standards," explained Joel

Vanderburg, WHO's Program Officer Manager in Phnom Penh. "They are made up by

countries that are members of the WHO, of which Cambodia is one... Countries have

the right to establish [the standards] they believe is appropriate for them."

The ministries of Industry and Health don't have clear responsibilities in monitoring

water and food hygiene. Both have laboratories to examine water and food, but there

is little communication between them. In addition, to begin operations, a water factory

needs a license from the municipality of Phnom Penh. After operations begin, it needs

a license from the MoI. The MoH has no authority to inspect a factory. "Factory

managers routinely refuse to let our inspectors come in," Dr. Pheang complained.

To further complicate matters, the Ministry of Commerce plans to get in on the act.

"It wants to expand beyond checking the quality of imports to inspecting the

quality of every product made in Cambodia," said Sivlay. Officials expect the

Council of Ministers will draft a sub-decree to clearly delineate responsibilities

among the ministries "in the future".

In the meantime, this bureaucratic struggle means that some factories are not properly

monitored or regulated.

The MoI say the Pure Drinking Water Factory, which produces Dragon Water, obtained

a license in 1990 when it opened, but refuses to get a new license as they are required

to do under a 1992 sub-decree issued by the MoI. Officials from both ministries agree

that the bottled water from this factory is unhygienic.

What's more, the ministries lack enforcement power. If the MoI finds the water quality

of a certain factory suspect, it first recommends to the manager ways to make the

water more clean.

"Most factory managers don't have the technological know-how," Ping Sivlay

explained. "We need to give them suggestions and tell them what are good and

bad practices." If the factory doesn't improve, the ministry requests another

meeting with the manager. It can threaten to cancel a factory's license, but this

hasn't been done yet.

Another problem is that the managers of "a few factories" refuse to allow

the MoI to inspect their premises. "They have connections with the police or

someone in government," Sivlay said.

There seem to be two types of problematic bottled-water factories, according to Dr.

Pheang. First, some large factories operate high-quality filtration equipment, but

its water bottles may be unclean, its pumps contaminated, or its workers have poor

hygienic work practices.

Second, many small factories have low-quality equipment as well as unhygienic working

conditions. In these factories, Pheang said, "everything is bad."

Twenty-five bottled water factories have MoI licenses to operate in Phnom Penh. The

three largest are Eurotech, Ozone, and Anco. At $1 for a 20-liter bottle, Eurotech's

water is the most expensive, but ministry officials considered its water the highest

quality. As with all factories, however, the water from Eurotech, even with its high-quality

filtration equipment, is "not stable," according to Sivlay.

This means that while some sampled water is of the highest quality, other samples

from the same factory may be contaminated. Pheang attributes this to the unhygienic

practices of some workers.

Anco water is Phnom Penh's second-largest bottled water company, after Ozone. At

800 riel for a 20-liter bottle, Anco - part of the conglomerate that includes 555,

Konica, and Johnnie Pleasure cigarettes - sells 5,000 bottles a month. Although its

Thai-made equipment is of high quality, MoI inspectors occasionally find mosquitoes

in the bottles or unclean worker practices at the factory.

Workers wash the returned bottles with soap and water before refilling them using

an ordinary hose. The small bottles are filled with more sophisticated machines.

According to Dr. Phaeng, several letters on the Anco label suggest that they have

the MoH seal of approval. "Not true," he said. "We have never inspected

them."

Penguin factory also uses an ordinary hose to pour filtered water into 20-liter bottles,

still wet from the soap-and-water cleansing. The workers screw on the top, then affix

the "Penguin" label. The Penguin factory also filled up water bottles bearing

the labels of Mondal, Bokor, and unidentified others. "We are hygienic,"

the owner said, brandishing her MoI license.

Some factories fill up the discarded water bottles of well-known high-quality imported

water bottles with unhygienic water.

Dr. Pheang has heard, but not been able to substantiate, rumors that some clandestine

factories fill up the discarded bottles of French-imported water.

MoI's Sivlay denies the existence of this type of fraud: "Two years ago, we

had this problem. But today, no more."

However, Pheang says: "How do we know if they don't exist? We don't have the

authority to check."

He advises the public to buy high-quality water directly from the factory. This will

reduce the likelihood of buying fraudulent water.

Beyond that, the quality of water you drink may be a matter of luck.

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