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Drinking In Business : Purified-Water Stores Springing Up in Southland

September 24, 1996|JILL LEOVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stores selling purified water are popping up all over Southern California, capitalizing on people's perceptions that tap water isn't safe to drink.

"It's really a Southern California phenomenon," said Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, of the food and drug division of the California Department of Health Services. Her agency has licensed about 292 such stores throughout the state, largely in Los Angeles County.

Often concentrated in low-income areas, these independently owned stores tout themselves as a low-cost alternative to delivered water.

"People are scared to drink tap water" in the wake of problems in municipal water supplies, said Julie Chaves, who opened a store called Drinking Water Depot in Winnetka in the San Fernando Valley three months ago with her husband, Joe.

She points to an outbreak of cryptosporidium that sickened thousands in Milwaukee in 1993.

Such stores are a sign of the growing distrust municipal water utilities face from their customers.

Los Angeles tap water is perfectly safe to drink, said a frustrated Pankaj Parekh, regulatory compliance manager for the city Department of Water and Power. Anyone buying water from stores on safety concerns alone, he said, "is wasting their money. It's crazy."

But consumers such as Gloria Rosas of Canoga Park are dubious.

"Tap water tastes bad, and they've been saying there is a lot of lead in it," she said, as she filled a 5- gallon jug at Drinking Water Depot. "I'm concerned about it--not for me, but for my kids."

The new water stores are just another outgrowth of the surging bottled-water business, a $3.4-billion-a-year industry that is growing nationally by 9% a year and claims California as its capital, said Jennifer Levine of the International Bottled Water Assn.

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The phenomenon has made water, a single, simple molecule, into a consumer product vast in its variety. You can now buy distilled water, water from private springs, caffeinated water and even bottled tap water. You can have water delivered in big jugs, or buy it in tiny bottles at ballparks. There are so many types, in fact, that this year--concerned that the public would be confused--the government drew up new definitions to distinguish among spring water, purified water and other varieties, said Judith Foulke, spokeswoman for the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Until now, though, much commercially produced water has been targeted toward upscale customers--the Evian and Perrier crowd, said Eric Sfiligoj, senior editor of Beverage World, a trade magazine.

Water stores "are a market for people who can't afford home delivery," said Joe Chaves, co-owner of Drinking Water Depot. "It's for your gardener, your laborer, your hard-working person who is raising two kids."

Typically, the stores sell tap water purified by reverse osmosis, Abarquez-Delacruz said. Reverse-osmosis filtration forces the water through a membrane that removes minute particles, including many minerals.

The process is effective in purifying water to some extent, provided the equipment is maintained properly. Health officials have deferred issuance of several water store licenses lately because of lines that needed flushing and pipes that weren't cured, Abarquez-Delacruz said.

At Drinking Water Depot, customers bring in their own bottles to the blue-carpeted shop and pay 25 cents a gallon to fill them at a spigot on the wall.

Customers can usually fill a 5-gallon jug at most water stores for a little more than a dollar. That is an eighth of the price of most delivered water, and on par with the price of vending machine water, also purified using reverse osmosis technology.

But the price is nowhere near as cheap as tap water, which costs about one-tenth of a cent a gallon, said Roy Wolfe of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Levels of contaminants allowed in bottled and water-store water are identical to what the federal Environmental Protection Agency allows in tap water, with the exception of a few chemicals.

The exceptions include lead and trihalomethanes, a byproduct of chlorination regulated as a potential carcinogen by the EPA. Both elements are regulated more stringently in bottled and retail water.

But by and large, the rules are so similar that bottled-water companies "frown on advertisements that would promote the attitude that tap water is not safe," said Anne Turner, technical coordinator for McKesson Water Products Co. in Pasadena, the parent company of Sparkletts.

Not so the new water stores. "If you drink tap water without a filter, you are asking for problems," said Sam Intermill, owner of Water Stop N' Go in South El Monte.

Parekh of the DWP is exasperated by such talk. "I drink tap water. I'm happy to," he said.

Protozoa such as cryptosporidium, which infected the Milwaukee water system, are a worry because they are resistant to traditional chlorine treatment, he said.

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