Establishing a Basis for Claims

Manufacturers of residential water treatment systems make claims of performance for their products. In the U.S., these claims typically revolve around the systems’ contaminant reduction performance. We’re all familiar with the typical ones:

  • “750-gal capacity”
  • “Reduces chlorine taste and odor”
  • “Removes 98% of lead”
  • “Reduces lindane”
  • “Removes microbiological cysts”

It makes perfect sense from a marketing point of view that manufacturers would make these kinds of claims. After all, who would want to buy a residential water treatment system that does not actually do something? Claims are made on many different types of consumer products, ranging from toothpaste that prevents tooth decay to foods that do not contain preservatives. The manufacturer must advertise these claims because these aspects of the product are difficult for consumers to notice or determine on their own. Performance claims made by manufacturers are especially relevant for water treatment products because often the treatment performed is not obvious. Consumers can’t see, taste or smell lead in their water, so it is difficult for them to judge a water treatment system’s effectiveness.

Some of these claims seem so typical that many of us in the industry do not think twice about them. In fact, some claims might be so commonplace that we would not think to question their basis. However, given the issue that the claims are difficult for consumers to verify through obvious means, and therefore, could cause skepticism or open the door for false claims, it is very important that manufacturers have a solid basis to support them.

 

Approaches to Justifying Claims

There are a number of approaches to establishing a basis for claims. One approach might be based on specifications and general knowledge. For instance, a manufacturer of an inline GAC filter might claim that the filter reduces chlorine taste and odor by 75% for 1,000 gal at a flow rate of 1 gpm. This claim may be based on the specifications for the carbon used, the cross sectional area of the filter and the length of the filter, coupled with knowledge of water treatment. Various calculations of flow velocity and capacity could serve as a basis for this claim.

Because this claim is purely aesthetic in nature, it is unlikely that the manufacturer would face serious issues of liability for it. No consumers will be relying on the manufacturer’s claims to control health-related contaminants in the water. And, if asked about the claim, the manufacturer has a basis for making it.

The question is: Could problems result from making this kind of claim? Yes. At the end of the day, the manufacturer does not have actual product test data demonstrating adequate performance to justify the claim. A party claiming to have been wronged by a poorly performing product, armed with supporting test data developed under the accepted national standard for chlorine reduction (NSF/ANSI 42), would have a more sound basis for demonstrating the filter’s lack of performance than the manufacturer would have for demonstrating its performance.

In the case of claims relating to contaminants with health effects, calculations based on specifications and modeling can be more risky because the stakes are higher. Consumers may rely on these products to control a known contaminant in their water. Manufacturers would be well advised that the risks of making these claims on their products warrant a higher degree of due diligence.

 

Testing According to National Standards

Product testing is always a more solid foundation for making claims regarding product performance than calculations based on specifications—regardless of whether those claims are aesthetic or related to contaminants with known health effects. There are many different approaches to product testing. The two most general categories of product testing are field testing and laboratory testing.

The strength of field testing is that the product is being evaluated in an actual usage situation. The weakness of field testing is that actual usage situations vary almost infinitely, making evaluation of the applicability of the test data to other actual usage situations very difficult. Some of the variables inherent in field testing are summarized in Figure 1.

Laboratory testing is a way to reduce or eliminate many of these variables. Although laboratory testing is not a guarantee of performance in all possible field applications, it does allow for control and consistency. The highest measure of consistency is to test according to national standards, such as the NSF/ANSI DWTU Standards.

Not only is testing to these standards consistent and comparable, but it is also defensible as an approach to establishing a basis for claims. After all, the purpose of these standards is to provide conservative, rigorous test methods developed through a consensus process to serve as a guideline for establishing performance of residential water treatment products. It would be difficult for anyone to argue that testing to demonstrate conformance to these standards as a basis for claims is not appropriate.

 

One-Time Testing vs. Ongoing Certification

No product remains unchanged over time. Some manufacturers continually seek to improve their products or reduce the cost of manufacturing, and therefore, change manufacturing processes or materials of construction. Other manufacturers strive to continually produce consistent products and make as few changes as possible, but suppliers sometimes eliminate production of parts or materials and thus force their hand to make changes.

Given these inevitable changes, any product testing results eventually become outdated. We all recognize this. Any manufacturer relying on product testing data from 1977 as a basis to establish claims should make sure that product performs exactly as it did when first tested.

There are several approaches for manufacturers to address product change, and provide a duly diligent basis for claims made on the product as these changes occur. The most obvious solution is to retest the product. But, how often should manufacturers retest? Every time there is a change? That could get expensive. Every time there is a major change? What defines a major change? Testing every X years? These are all good questions, and they are difficult to manage without a defined, systematic approach.

One systematic approach option that provides a solid basis for claims on a product is third-party certification. Third-party certifiers accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) are required to develop and adhere to certification policies. These policies address many different facets of product certification, such as ensuring conformance to performance claims as products change via periodic retesting and ongoing product evaluation, including facility audits. By using a third-party certifier, manufacturers can, in essence, relieve some of the burden of their due diligence. The certifier can help guide the manufacturer in determining consistent and appropriate testing plans and decisions, based on standards, policies, science and product knowledge.

 

Consumers Recognize the Value of Third-Party Certification

Not only is there liability associated with making claims on products, but there is also the related issue of whether anyone believes the claims in the first place. Let’s face it, ever since the days of the snake oil salesman, consumers have become more and more skeptical of product claims—especially when the claims are difficult for consumers to verify through sight, taste or smell. Independent certification of those claims is one way to help alleviate this skepticism. A survey conducted by NSF in 2005 revealed that consumers prefer products that have been independently tested and certified. This survey further indicated that consumer purchasing decisions are affected by independent testing and certification.

Product marketing requirements will dictate that manufacturers continue to make claims on their residential water treatment products. Because of these claims, manufacturers will continue to face the issue of due diligence in establishing a solid foundation for them. To address potential liability for these claims, as well as to decrease consumer skepticism of their validity, testing and certification by an independent, third-party certifier provides a systematic, comprehensive and defensible solution.

 

Rick Andrew has been with NSF International for seven years, working with certification of residential drinking water products. He is the operations manager of the Drinking Water Treatment Units Program, having previously served as technical manager for four years. His previous experience was in the area of analytical and environmental chemistry consulting. Andrew is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Water Quality Products. He can be reached at 800.NSF.MARK, or by e-mail at andrew@nsf.org.

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