As many as 2,000 bottles of drinking water from an Irvine-based bottled-water company were removed from store shelves as company and state health officials continued Friday to test the product for potentially lethal levels of sodium fluoride, authorities said.
Niagara Drinking Water Inc. recalled all of its 2 1/2-gallon bottles from about half a dozen stores in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and Las Vegas after the state Department of Health Services issued a warning Thursday that the water might be dangerously contaminated with sodium fluoride, state and company spokesmen said.
State Health Director Kenneth W. Kizer had issued a warning to consumers not to drink Niagara-brand water in 2 1/2-gallon plastic containers after tests found the odorless and colorless chemical present in potentially lethal amounts in two bottles sold on March 2 and 3 at the Food 4 Less market in Moreno Valley.
Members of one family that had purchased the water suffered upset stomachs, according to Frank Nava, chief of field operations in the Department of Health Service's food and drug unit.
"The other (family) actually threw up the water right away within minutes of having ingested it," he said. "The last word that we got is that they are fine."
The source of the contamination was unknown, and testing was expected to continue until early next week.
Only the 2 1/2-gallon bottles of Niagara water sold through retail outlets were recalled. The bulk of Niagara's water is sold in larger containers and delivered directly to homes, Diane Peykoff, Niagara's secretary-treasurer, said.
"At this point, we think it's an isolated case, but we are continuing to take additional samples and (are) waiting for the phone to ring and see if we get any additional illnesses," Nava said.
"Any testing we provide for the remaining water will be done at a very fast pace," he added. "We're working to do that so they can get their product back on the shelf right away."
Health officials are also sampling other brands stocked at the Moreno Valley store "as a precautionary measure," Nava said. The possibility of sabotage has not been ruled out, although Nava stressed that there is no evidence to indicate the contamination was deliberate.
Sodium fluoride is sometimes added to drinking water to help prevent tooth decay. But Nava said in those cases, the chemical amounts to only 1 or 2 parts per million. The two confiscated bottles contained fluoride up to 450 p.p.m., he said.
"A baby would have to drink 16 ounces of it to be lethal," Nava said. "An adult would have to drink eight to 10 eight-ounce glasses."
But before that is likely to happen, the water would cause vomiting, he said.
Kizer advised anyone who has consumed the water and believes that he or she has become ill to consult a physician and notify a county health department.
Peykoff said she is confident that the water was not contaminated at the company's production plant.
"I do feel comfortable in saying it (the contamination) did not come from our facility," she said. "We have tested every bottle that we have recalled and will continue to."
Niagara's 2 1/2-gallon bottles do not normally contain the company's fluoridated water, Peykoff said. Fluoridated water sold by Niagara is processed in a separate room at the company's Irvine plant and is packaged only in 5-gallon bottles, she added.
Bottled drinking water is as likely to come from the tap of a municipal water system as from wells and springs, but it is so highly treated that it is virtually unrecognizable, spokesmen for bottled water companies said Friday.
Except for mountain spring water, which is simply filtered and sterilized, bottled-water producers use reverse osmosis and deionization to remove all minerals and other materials from the water. They then add small quantities of food-grade minerals to give it taste, treat it with ozone to kill microorganisms and bottle it.
Some bottlers also add fluoride to help prevent tooth decay. That addition must be noted on the label, and it is usually highlighted because the fluoride is a selling point.