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Tainted-Water Scare Brings Flood of Salesmen to Hacienda Heights

October 10, 1985|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — The salesman drew water from the kitchen faucet into a test tube, added a few drops of a solution and watched as a sediment separated and fell to the bottom. The test, he insisted, was proof that the water was unfit to drink.

At first, John Nakamura, in whose kitchen the salesman was demonstrating his product, was impressed.

The test showed "a lot of crud" in the tap water, Nakamura said, but how, he wondered later, could he determine if it really meant anything? Nakamura said that a second test, in which the salesman timed how long it took an additive to turn the tap water blue because of contaminants, was more confusing than persuasive.

In the end, Nakamura decided not to buy the $3,000 treatment system that the salesman said would clean up his tap water.

"If everything the salesman said is true, it's probably a good deal," Nakamura said afterward. But, "I'd have to know a lot more."

What Nakamura heard was "pure snake oil," according to a Metropolitan Water District water quality expert. The salesman's water purification system was either overpriced or more sophisticated than necessary, the expert said, and the demonstrations were proof of nothing.

Nakamura was entertaining the idea of spending $3,000 for a treatment system only because state health officials had declared late last month that the tap water in his Hacienda Heights neighborhood was contaminated with a volatile organic chemical, dichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen.

The San Gabriel Valley Water Co., at the direction of the state Deparment of Health Services, notified 5,300 customers on Sept. 30 that they should use bottled water for drinking and cooking.

But over the weekend, the health department reversed its position.

Stanley Cubanski, chief deputy director of the state Department of Health Services, said his department is in the process of mailing notices to explain that the contaminant level is so low--less than 1.3 parts per billion of water--that any cancer risk is "almost impossible to calculate." Cubanski said the first notice suggesting the use of bottled water "overstated what should be done."

"We should have sent a less hysterical notice," he said. "We're now in a situation of damage control."

The first health notice prompted hundreds of families to order bottled water and flooded the neighborhood with salesmen for all sorts of water purification devices, ranging from $50 faucet attachments to systems costing thousands of dollars.

"It's been an absolute zoo," said Wilfred Baca, a director of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn. Neighborhood shopping centers have been inundated with bottled water trucks driven by salesmen eager to sign up customers. Flyers promoting water purificiation devices and spreading alarm about the water "crisis" have been put on car windshields and handed out door-to-door, and residents have been besieged with calls from salesmen.

Clem Wachner, communications director for Sparkletts Drinking Water Corp., said his company has sent salesmen into the neighborhood and picked up "hundreds of new orders."

And, he said, the news from the health department that the water is now regarded as safe to drink is not likely to result in many cancellations.

A few years ago, people would order water during a contamination scare and then drop the service when alarm subsided, he said. But water quality has become such a continuing concern that new subscribers are "staying with us" even after an emergency has passed.

Michael Whitehead, vice president and general counsel of San Gabriel Valley Water Co., said he fears that some residents are being pressured by salesmen into buying expensive water treatment systems that are of doutbful value. "People are being inundated with sales pitches," he said.

Carolyn Fahnestock, executive director of the Pacific Water Quality Assn., a trade association that represents 165 water treatment dealers, said the field has attracted get-rich-quick salesmen who know nothing about water treatment systems.

"There are people out there putting clamps around pipes," she said, explaining that a salesman might tell a worried housewife a complicated story about "magnetic" techniques for pulling toxic substances out of the water. But what it amounts to, she said, is magic.

Most home water treatment systems cost $100 to $600, Fahnestock said. Any system that costs more than $1,000 is either designed for commercial use or involves something other than water purification, she said.

Fahnestock said water treatment companies rush into neighborhoods during reports of water contamination because they have a product that can solve the problem, but it is up to the customer to separate the legitimate dealers from fly-by-night operators.

"There is zero regulation of the industry," said Michael McGuire, water quality manager for the Metropolitan Water District. "It's buyer beware."

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