Rapid contamination identification in bottled water

A leading European soft drinks manufacturer asked RSSL to urgently investigate a serious consumer contamination complaint in bottled water.

Consumer drinking bottled water

The challenge


After ingesting one of the company’s bottled water drinks, a consumer reported needing medical attention. The product in question contained an unknown white substance and had a bitter off taste.


RSSL’s brief was to identify the contaminant and determine its root cause as a matter of urgency. At the same time, we needed to establish if there was a risk to public health and whether other soft drinks were affected.


As a member of RSSL’s Emergency Response Service (ERS), the manufacturer benefited from priority access to rapid analytical support, our multidisciplinary team of experts carried out a thorough investigation over the weekend.

Expert problem solving


Our initial informal sensory analysis determined there was no obvious odour difference between the complaint sample compared to a control. Chemical spot tests then enabled us to quickly eliminate common contaminants, such as bleach, detergents and illicit drugs. The next stage involved using a series of more sophisticated techniques to build a detailed understanding:


  • Solid phase microextraction (SPME) linked to gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) established there were no volatile and semi-volatile species differences between the complaint and a control.
  • Light microscopy analysis suggested the sediment was likely consistent with a partially dissolved pharmaceutical tablet.
  • A combination of Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy, X-ray microanalysis and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy identified several common tablet excipients, along with data consistent with the pharmaceutical Atorvastatin. This was not observed in corresponding control.
  • Additional multi-elemental testing by ICP-MS determined that contents of the complaint bottle were within limits set out in Schedule 1 of the UK Statutory Instrument ‘The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations Act 2016.’
  • A final α-amylase test confirmed the presence of saliva on the rim of the bottle.





Our subsequent root cause analysis determined that the consumer had been prescribed the identified pharmaceutical medication (Atorvastatin) and the nausea they had described was unrelated to the bottled water.


This result, together with the positive test for saliva, suggested the medication was most likely backwashed into the bottled water when the consumer took a drink. It then dissolved into the visible sediment that triggered the complaint.



The outcome


RSSL’s Investigative Team identified the contaminant and provided a comprehensive report within 24 hours of sample receipt. Our findings showed this was highly likely to be an isolated incident, with the contaminant introduced by the consumer rather than during the production process. This meant the client did not need to request court documentation or expert witness statements, which we were ready to make available, if required, as part of our ERS service.

Thanks to RSSL’s rapid and accurate emergency response service, we could make informed business-critical decisions and ensure our actions would safeguard public health.

Soft drinks manufacturer




How RSSL can support with chemical contamination investigations


RSSL can provide both analytical and consultancy services to support with the identification and resolution of a chemical contamination incident. With proven experience in contamination problem solving alongside the latest analytical technologies, our multidisciplinary team of technical experts can identify and quantify contaminants, our toxicologists can perform risk assessments, we can support with root cause analysis investigations and allergen food safety training as well as provide rapid analytical support via our Emergency Response Service. Click through to find out more or contact us below.

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