Most Egyptians with average incomes or higher rely on bottled water instead of tap water. They believe advertisements that promote “international quality” and “guaranteed purity.” Those whose economic conditions do not allow them to buy bottled water would also buy that if they had a choice.
Four billion cubic meters of bottled water are sold in Egyptian stores annually. Consumers at restaurants, cafes and workplaces rely on it. The water is also “delivered right to your home” in bottles sealed with international branding that is supposed to give you the moral security that you are avoiding contaminated water.
Unfortunately, this is a false sense of security.
Tests conducted by the investigator showed that the water bottled by the main water companies in Egypt contains bacterial colonies and microorganisms that cause long-term damage and severe complications. Moreover, they are resistant to treatments and antibiotics.
This is not about factories that fill water in poor neighbourhoods or about companies operating illegally; rather, these are international companies that boast official licenses. These companies have the largest share of the Egyptian market, with an investment worth five billion Egyptian pounds while its total sales volume exceeds six billion pounds. We are talking here about global companies like Dasani and Aquafina and Nestle control 70% of the bottled water market in Egypt.
Dr. Hisham Sorour, professor of physical and environmental chemistry (where? At which university or) explains that in Egypt, “there is no mineral water in the correct sense of the word; instead, there is water sourced from wells that has been bottled.” He adds, “When it comes to the health criteria of bottled water as opposed to tap water, the differences are very negligible.”
Sorour explains, “The source of mineral water is natural springs in the mountains. These have proportions of natural salts without additions or modifications, in addition to having health benefits. As for bottled water, this is extracted from underground wells. Then, the percentages of salts are estimated, purified and treated by adding other elements.”
Comparing the retail price of various bottled water and the cost of tap water in Egypt reveals the massive amounts of profits made by companies through false advertising.
The price of a cubic meter, that is a thousand liters, in the highest segments of consumption of drinking water in homes reaches 3.15 Egyptian pounds. On the other hand, the price of a large bottle of water of one and a half liters is 5 Egyptian pounds.
Sorour says “ To reach a safe source of water, it is necessary to dig deeper than 150 meters where the underground water table lies surrounded by a rocky formation. This it is not suitable for consumption unless it is separated from soil leaks and sanitary drains.
Bottled water companies do not actually comply with such guidelines, but they follow the food safety criteria outlined by the Egyptian National Food Safety Authority. The latest update of January 2021 reveals that 11 out of 15 licensed and approved companies have their wells concentrated in the agricultural Delta governorates, while the remaining four are in the desert region.
The wells locations are dictated by the companies economic considerations, and they prefer the agricultural delta region which is close to the capital in instead of the western desert region. These companies choices are not guided by the water quality of the wells in this region or that.
But the wells choice could affect the taste of the water and leads to consumer reluctance to buy this or that brand.
Isra’a Abdel Hafez says about a bottle of water from the "Dasani" company she bought: “It tasted weird and smelled like sewage” It was sealed well.
Isra’a did not hesitate to leave a comment on the company’s official Facebook page. Her complaint remained unanswered although the page follows up on consumers’ comments, and answers questions about its products and delivery matters.
Mohammad Ahmad from Damietta Governorate stopped buying Aquafina bottled water when he noticed the bottled water “very bad taste” more than once and after buying their bottles in three different governorates. Unlike Isra’a, he did not file any complaints. He says, “Who do I ask for my rights? I would waste my time; it’s no use!”
Sorour says that in “hard water” wells containing high levels of chemical elements, such as chlorine, bicarbonate or phosphate, these can be chemically treated to make them suitable for human consumption. There are other elements, such as nitrites, which are more difficult to get rid of and are toxic to humans, making those wells water unfit for consumption.
Sorour explains that the wells in the Delta governorates are the most vulnerable to the leakage of concentrated pesticides from drainage systems and agricultural lands. If soil fertilizers accumulate in underground wells, these are difficult to separate from water and treat it.
In its provision No. (458) of 2007, the Egyptian Ministry of Health had imposed limits on certain proportions of salts, minerals and chemical elements in bottled water. It also stipulated that the extracted water be “free of primary organisms that pose a threat to health, specifically pathogenic micro-organisms, including parasites.”
Aquafina and Dasani violated even these requirements in their products sold in the market which we had analyzed in the laboratory. It is noteworthy that the ministry had previously conducted analyses of Aquafina, Nestle, and Baraka bottled water in the governorates of Beheira and Sharqia in mid-2016. The results revealed that the samples “do not align with the microscopic examination and are not suitable for human consumption because they contain coliform bacteria, live protozoa and algae.”
At the time, the Public Monitoring Authority requested the removal of the non compliant brands batches of water from the market which came in different container sizes. The batches removed belonged to different production date for each of the three brands, resulting in the removal of six non compliant batches within one month.
Later it became clear that not much has changed between 2016 and 2021.
We went to the Microanalysis Center in the Faculty of Science at Cairo University to analyze a sample from Aquafina water. We presented a sealed bottle of 600 ml with the name of the company written on it to measure some of the elements in it and to cross check these with the standard specifications on its label. The container carried the production date of May 22, 2020 and it showed batch number L2014tn8 – 15:19.
The percentage of some chemical elements was lower than what the bottle announced the water was supposed to contain, but it was still within the acceptable range. There was a low percentage of dissolved salts (TDS) at a rate of 90.1 mg per liter. This is a very small percentage, and the maximum percentage should be 1000 mg per liter.
As per Ammonia, the percentage was also four times higher than the permissible level. The maximum level in the specifications label is set at 0.5 mg per liter, while the sample showed 0.20 mg per liter. Finally, the amount of oxygen consumed (BOD) was 1.4 mg per liter, which indicates the presence of bacteria and other microorganisms. This called for a microbiological examination to find out their types.
Dr. Hisham Sorour commented on the results and explained the high levels of ammonia in the water, by deducting that the well where the bottle was filled must be close to cultivated lands. Elements from the soil and the fertilizer must have been seeping into the well water. He pointed out that if these elements entered the human body in large quantities, it would cause a great health problem.
The percentage of total dissolved solids (TDS) levels that appear in the results is very low. Making this drinking water less beneficial and rather harmful to human health. It is not helpful for conducting electricity and is devoid of salts that are necessary to help the body’s cells absorb the elements in the digested food. Thus, the cells cannot perform their natural vital functions.
These preliminary results prompted us to dig deeper and analyze bottled water content more accurately.
To start, we took samples clearly marked with their different brand names to several laboratories affiliated with government agencies. The results would show that they were fit for human consumption.
Professor of biochemistry and environmental chemistry at Cairo University, Dr. Mohammad Sa’ad, and Dr. Sorour questioned these results and advised that samples be taken again but this time in unlabeled containers to obtain results free of foul play or ones complying with government directives.
We chose samples from Aquafina and Dasani bottled water, as they are the two brands with the largest share of the Egyptian bottled water market, then took their content for analysis claiming they belonged to water from two different wells.
We complied with the laboratory’s condition of providing samples in sterilized and sealed containers. We were given six sterile glass containers and were asked to allocate three bottles per well and to fill them with at least one liter each.
We took samples on the same day from containers stamped with the same production date and the same batch number from Aquafina and Dasani. They were immediately emptied into the sterilized bottles as per conditions set by the lab.
The results confirmed our suspicions: The Aquafina samples were not fit for human consumption and do not meet the specifications set by the Ministry of Health because they contain colonies of fecal streptococci bacteria, or enterococcus faecalis, a type of bacteria that causes bacteremia and may lead to blood poisoning, inflammation of the stomach and the urinary tract, and their levels must have been ‘null’ as per government provisions. These colonies also acquire immunity to antibiotics, especially to those used in treating severe infections, which makes it difficult to treat various diseases and infections.
The risk posed for people consuming this contaminated water vary from one person to another, and there is no specific limit or specific consumption quantities upon which to base the risk levels or the likelihood of the emergence of these diseases. The category of people most vulnerable to develop severe symptoms as a result of this type of water include children with poor immunity, and people with some chronic diseases. These are exactly the groups that resort to bottled water to avoid any contamination to begin with. Healthy people develop fewer symptoms as a result of consuming this bottled water, such as fatigue, vomiting or stomach cramps. But drinking too much of it might increase the severity of their symptoms and infections due to the increased chances of bacteria multiplying and becoming more antibiotic resistant.
Similarly, the Dasani company samples were not fit for consumption due to the presence of three types of bacteria, such as the coli colony, the bacilliform colonic bacteria, and the colonies of fecal streptococci bacteria.
Coliform bacteria are types of bacteria found in human and animal faeces, and this indicates that the well water has been contaminated with sewage or agricultural drainage.
These bacteria move to underground or surface well water, especially in the case of poor disinfection systems. They mainly affect the digestive system.
The E. coli or Escherichia coli bacteria secrete harmful enzymes that scratch the lining of the intestine. Over time, this leads to ulcers, and it is considered one of the main causes of bleeding ulcers.
How then do these companies obtain their licenses and who monitors them and their work?
First, the company registers their licenses with the Chamber of Food Industries based on the fact that there is a well that is a source of water. After that, the Director of the Chamber of Food Industries, Mahmoud Al-Basyouni explains that a license on the well’s validity is obtained from the Supreme Committee for Water in the Ministry of Health.
The National Food Safety Authority approves the companies and the product after inspecting the factories and endorsing their suitability. The parts that conform to the requirements of the authority are registered on the “white list.” This is considered an official certificate testifying to the safety of manufacturing and distribution of the company’s products.
Besides the Ministry of Health, the regulatory authorities for this industry include the Supreme Committee for Water, the Food Safety Authority and the General directorate for Food Control at the Ministry of Health. These entities take samples from all companies’ wells every three years and examine them to renew their licenses after ensuring that the source is chemically and microbially valid. However the three years interval is a long period, as the wells characteristics and the levels of salts in them change, based on the nature of each well and on the amount of water extracted from it. In addition, the location of the well and its proximity to or distance from the cultivated areas affect the quality of its water, as well as excessive water pumping. These factors can change the characteristics of the wells and makes them lose their distinctive features.
Additionally, companies put labels on the containers showing the composition of the water and levels of salts and other minerals available in that water from the date the company obtained their licenses which is usually around 20 years earlier. Companies don’t usually update these labels when filling and distributing new batches. Therefore, the ingredients list on the bottles are (usually) completely different from the composition of the water inside, which has also been proven by our analyses.
The Chamber of Food Industries does not play any regulatory role over the bottling and sale of water process, but it is the link between companies and government agencies. This regulatory role is the responsibility of the Food Safety Authority and the Ministry of Health and its designated department. Their mission is to provide healthy and safe products suitable for consumption.
We contacted the head of the Food Safety Authority Dr. Hussein Mansour repeatedly to try to understand the authority’s mechanism to regulate the bottled water industry and market, and the authority’s role in protecting consumers from products that do not meet the set standards and the damages such products caused. He did not respond to our repeated requests to interview him nor did he answer our questions to clarify the authority’s supervisory role.
We went to the company’s headquarters to ask for a statement from the officials relating to the Dasani bottles analysis results. We met Amal Ahmad, the director of company legal affairs rejected our results and stated that the National Food Safety Authority. She explained that it is the only organization specialized in analyzing food products and conducting a quality check according to a set of specifications in addition to the examination of wells conducted by the Ministry of Health. Neither the press nor any other organization n has the competence or the right to carry out this process.
The legal affairs director added, “Dasani is the best - in the market. It holds the ISO certificate, and everyone knows the quality of our products. Apart from the competent entities, no one has the right to evaluate our products then come here to confront us about it except for the specialized institutions. Consumer complaints must be received via the company phone or through the Society For Consumer Protection (SCP) numbers not through media.” She quickly added, “these complaints could be due to poor storage methods and conditions sellers use and that is also the domain of the National Food Safety Authority, which can look into it alongside the Consumer Protection Agency.”
Additionally, we went to the headquarters of Aquafina, the water productioncompany talked to Mohammad Hreidi, the representative of legal affairs. Initially, he refused to express his opinion on our findings.He even refused to allow us to meet any representative or specialist from the Quality Assurance Department or the communication team. He insisted to be contacted by an authorized party and to be addressed in an official letter, and only then he would refer it to the specialized entity or the department that can provide a response.
In turn, ARIJ addressed the Aquafina with official letters with a list of queries around the results of the analysis. Until the publication of this investigation, no response has been received.
In this way, Egyptian consumers of bottled water have no choice but to keep experimenting and switching between various brands on their own. Alternately, they could go back to drinking tap water.