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Consumer Views

Uncorking the Bottled-Water Claims

April 10, 1986|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: Is bottled water really safer than tap water? How can one make an intelligent choice between Sparkletts, Arrowhead and the others? As for their "deep wells" claims--what about ground-water contamination? How effective is the monitoring of bottled water, and who does it?--B.S.

Answer: Everyone in the bottled-water industry delicately tiptoes around the "safety" aspect of what it replaces--tap water. It's considered bad form in the trade to suggest that Los Angeles' water supply is anything but lip-smacking as well as nutritious.

At the same time, however, both of the bottled-water leaders here, Sparkletts and Arrowhead, will admit that there are portions of the county where health officials recommend bottled water for reasons that hardly need belaboring. And, according to Doug Nelson, president of Sparkletts: "Until about five years ago, the people using bottled water were about 95% into it strictly because of the aesthetics--taste and appearance. About that time, though, safety did start becoming an issue--not about the supply itself but because of concern about hazardous waste dumps and that sort of thing."

No High Marks

Under the most charitable of definitions, no one gives Los Angeles very high marks in terms of the quality of its drinking water. Chemicals and rusty piping (in homes and in connections to the homes) frequently mar the appearance and taste of tap water.

"Most people, really," Nelson adds, "use bottled water for the assurance of what they're not getting in their drinking water."

When you get into brand differences--Sparkletts or Arrowhead, for instance--you're wandering off into a wildly subjective area. Both companies speak glowingly of each other's high quality and each other's zealous testing procedures. Both are card-carrying members of the National Bottled Water Assn., and both are regularly monitored--from source through the bottling process and to the consumer--by federal, state and county health agencies, and both retain outside, independent laboratories that impose even higher standards than the governmental agencies. Essentially, then, the whole thing boils down to plain old taste--as in taste buds--and the door is wide open.

Basically, according to both Sparkletts' Nelson and Larry Fried, director of marketing for Arrowhead, there are two approaches to bottled water: You start with a pretty fair water supply, purify it (almost to the point of distillation), then add back minerals to reformulate the taste (otherwise it would be pretty flat). The other approach is to go deep, deep underground--far below any surface contaminants--and use the water pretty much "as is" (although thoroughly filtering any solids out in the process).

Interestingly, Los Angeles' two major suppliers of bottled water approach the challenge from each of these two directions.

From Deep Wells

Sparkletts, according to Nelson, draws from deep wells but purifies this basically good water, then reformulates the taste.

Arrowhead, according to Fried, goes to deep, underground mountain springs in the San Bernardino Mountains, and "we don't add anything to it or subtract anything from it." The water, after filtration and testing, is then transported to the company's bottling plant in glass-lined tankers and is again tested and bottled.

Arrowhead, Fried continues, is also the only bottled-water producer here that markets not one but four variations of its water: the mountain-spring water (described here), which sells for $6.05 for a five-gallon jug; drinking water (for $5.70) that utilizes the same purification-and-reformulation procedure used by Sparkletts; distilled water (for $6) that, flat or not, is still needed by some customers on salt-free and/or mineral-free diets, and for commercial customers with specialized needs, fluoridated water ($6.10) that is distilled and with fluoride only added back.

So, there you have it. Quality and purity aren't an issue in either case--both Arrowhead and Sparkletts exhaustively test their water with the thoroughness of the Army screening a new recruit.

Back to taste, pure and simple.

Arrowhead, Fried says, touts the "naturalness" of its mountain-spring water. Sparkletts' Nelson feels that the "as is" source of Arrowhead's mountain spring water makes for "less uniformity" than Sparkletts' water.

In a city, however, where the average glass of tap water might be less than pleasing to the palate, let's face it: You have no way to go but up with either brand.

Q: It is my understanding that a homeowner with an FHA (Federal Home Administration) loan, and after living in the home for seven years, can apply to the FHA for a refund of insurance. Do you know anything about this?--H.H.

A: Not really, but Fred Stillio, the FHA's public affairs specialist here, was game in tackling it.

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