x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A test of consumer protection in recall

There are lessons we can learn from this week's little fuss over a brand of bottled water.

This week's fuss about an excess of bromates in Masafi drinking water may prove to be little more than a tempest in a bottle. All the same, the experience offers a number of lessons.

We can all feel reassured to know that bottled water, so much a part of daily life for most of us, is subject to regular official testing. A shiny bottle and brand image do not, by themselves, guarantee purity. Official testing of both tap water and commercial brands in bottles is a welcome bulwark for public health.

In this case, regulators identified a potential issue, took action and addressed the company involved - notably, the largest drinking-water distributor in the country. This is the kind of responsiveness that we want to see.

Look what happened: tests by Dubai Municipality turned up, in just one 500ml bottle of Masafi brand water, a quantity of bromates slightly over the acceptable level. These compounds of the element bromine, by-products of water purification, are associated with cancer, although the link is very tenuous. The World Health Organisation recommends a limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) of bromates in drinking water.

If 100,000 people drink water at 10 ppb for a lifetime, the WHO says, statistically one of those people will get cancer from it, probably cancer of the kidney. That's not one case per year, but one per 100,000 lifetimes. So a bottle or two of water with a slight excess is little cause for concern.

But limits are limits. Dubai and the Ministry of Environment and Water were right to act. But they were not quite on the same page: Dubai asked Masafi to correct the problem, but did not make an announcement. The federal Ministry announced a recall, but evidently nobody told retailers. And, crucially, at first nobody was willing to name the brand.

On any public health issue, no matter how slight, nothing disturbs people more than the idea that they are not getting the facts. This case was plainly never really serious, and so there was, as far as we can tell, some public confusion but little real concern, and no panic.

But in a world of bird flu, adulterated food scandals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a really alarming public-health problem can always arise on short notice. Officials must be ready to act and also to communicate clearly, fully and promptly.