By Shakeh Avoyan
U.S. health authorities have banned sales of Armenia’s most famous and popular brand of mineral water, saying that it contains excessive amounts of arsenic, a poisonous chemical that can cause cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said this week that it has ordered all importers of Jermuk bottled water to recall the product mainly sold in California and other Armenian-populated parts of the United States. “FDA will continue working to remove all such bottled products from the marketplace,” it said in a statement.
The statement specifically mentioned still and carbonated water bottled by Armenia’s two largest producers of Jermuk. Only one of them, Jermuk Group, could be reached for comment on Friday.
A company spokesman, Edgar Ghazarian, told RFE/RL that the ban, which could hit hard Jermuk sales in Armenia, took it by surprise. Ghazarian said the water, extracted from an eponymous spa resort in the southeastern Vayots Dzor region, was certified by U.S. health authorities before it began to be exported to America in 2000.
“The company has always kept concentrations of arsenic in Jermuk within allowable limits,” he said.
But according to FDA, testing of Jermuk products found that they contain between 500 and 600 micrograms of arsenic per liter. “FDA’s standard of quality bottled water allows no more than 10 micrograms per liter,” the agency said. It argued that extended exposure to the poisonous metal could lead to cancer and death, but added that so far there have been no recorded cases of illnesses caused by Jermuk.
The Armenian standards, set by the National Institute of Standards, allow for up to 700 micrograms of arsenic in one liter of mineral water. But the institute director, Yerem Chakhoyan, acknowledged that Jermuk should be regularly drunk only by individuals suffering some stomach and intestinal diseases.
“The labels on Jermuk bottles make this clear,” Chakhoyan told RFE/RL, denying that the government and bottlers have failed to warn Armenians of the health risks involved. Jermuk is “medical water,” he said.
However, Jermuk is heavily advertised by Armenian television stations as “table water” meant for mass consumption, and the TV commercials carry no health warnings.