Concerns Over Lead Reports Boost Bottled Water Sales in Israel

The rise comes despite the cold and rainy weather, which would normally have resulted in a decline in sales of beverages and in retail sales in general.

Bottled mineral water on a shelf at an Israeli supermarket.
Ofer Vaknin

Recent reports about the presence of lead in some of the country’s drinking water and the health risks associated with it have created a spike in sales of bottled mineral water.

According to the StoreNext retail data firm, since TheMarker initially disclosed water-quality data from the Israel Standards Institution earlier this month, there has been an 11.8 percent increase in the sales of bottled mineral water. The rise came despite the cold and rainy weather that the country has experienced, which would normally have resulted in a decline in sales of beverages and in retail sales in general.

In 2016, Israelis bought 440 million shekels ($119 million) worth of mineral water, so if the 11.8 percent sales increase since the beginning of February is sustained over the course of an entire year, it would translate into an rise of more than 50 million shekels in mineral water sales. This comes on the backdrop of what have already been steady increases in mineral water sales in the country – up by 0 percent since 2011 and by 5 percent in 2016 alone.

The major food retailers and smaller corner groceries alike have all been seeing similar increases in bottled water sales since the news about the lead in tap water; all the major mineral water brands have also been experiencing similar sales jumps since those reports broke. StoreNext reported that sales of Neviot mineral water (a brand of the Central Bottling Company, the local Coca-Cola licensee) jumped 14.8 percent; Mei Eden sales have been up 11.6 percent; and sales of Jafora-Tabori’s Ein Gedi brand have risen 9.4 percent during the period from February 1 to 18.

News of tainted water followed the Health Ministry's disclosure on January 18 that samples of water taken from espresso machines at some cafes had prompted concern about the presence of lead. On February 2, TheMarker reported that the standards institute had also found lead in the tap water that supplied some of the machines. That was followed on February 12 by reports that lead was found in the tap water of a large number of locales around the country.

A report prepared by the Health Ministry in 2013 that was recently made public took issue with what had been the ministry position – that the presence of lead in lower concentrations than the maximum allowed amount was not dangerous. For the past four years, it turns out, ministry staff had come to believe that even small amounts of lead in drinking water are a threat to the health of the public, particularly to children. With that news, the mineral water brands jumped at the opportunity over the past two weeks and launched new advertising campaigns.

At the same time, the Israel Medical Association released an information sheet to the public on the lead issue, explaining the effect of continuous exposure to even low concentrations of the substance. Such exposure can cause high blood pressure, and can affect kidney function, fertility – among both women and men – and the nervous system, says Dr. Alon Laufer-Peretz, the director of the occupational medicine clinic at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva.

“Typical symptoms are stomach pain and constipation, an effect on mood, irritability, a decline in cognitive ability and [problems involving] the nervous system. Lead can pass into the placenta, so exposure to the fetuses in pregnant women is also possible," Laufer-Peretz says.

"The main concern in such cases is harm caused by lead to the fetus’ developing nervous system, and studies have demonstrated that even [exposure to] very low concentrations [of lead] in pregnant women can cause damage to children’s intelligence and behavior. Such exposure during pregnancy can also cause miscarriage and stillbirth,” he adds.

During the last three decades of the 20th century, studies showed that long-term effects of lead could ensue among children even after exposure to very small amounts of the substance that caused no symptoms initially.