Water Vending Machines - Are They Safe?

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San Francisco Chronicle, (Sunday)

Water vending machines targeted by lawsuit

ETHAN RARICK, Associated Press Writer (12-10) 00:28 PST SAN FRANCISCO (AP) --

California water-vending machines tested last summer failed to meet state standards for chemicals about a third of the time, according to a report by environmentalists. "Buying water from a machine in California is like playing a slot machine: You can't be sure what will come out," said a report released by the Environmental Working Group and the Environmental Law Foundation, which checked 274 machines operated by Glacier Water, Inc.

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The Environmental Law Foundation planned to sue Vista-based Glacier Water Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court for an unspecified amount of restitution for consumers. The complaint also asks that the machines be taken out of operation, said Jim Wheaton, president of the Environmental Law Foundation. Glacier Water is the state's biggest operator of water-vending machines. The company operates more than 7,000 machines in California and more than 14,000 nationwide and maintains its water is safe.

"For the past 20 years, Glacier Water has been committed to providing safe, high-quality drinking water," read a statement released by the company Monday. "Our water vending machines start with federally regulated municipal water which then passes through a comprehensive seven-step process. To ensure the public's safety, we complete over 49,000 tests each year through independent third-party ((Environmental Protection Agency))-certified laboratories."

Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services, said the agency will perform random tests on Glacier Water's machines as a result of the environmentalists' findings, but she said the water is still safe to drink. The water-vending machines face a tougher standard than tap water, Brooks said. To use the Glacier Water machines, which are often located at grocery or drug stores, consumers deposit money and fill their own jugs or bottles. The water, advertised as cleaner than water provided by utilities, typically costs more than tap water but less than pre-bottled water available in stores.

The two Bay Area environmental groups said they tested the machines, located in nine major counties around the state, for trihalomethanes, or THMs, chemicals that are a byproduct of treating water with chlorine. Drinking water is commonly treated with chlorine. When the chlorine is added to disinfect tap water, it results in a reaction with natural organic matter in the water. In a third of the cases, the water exceeded the state standard for THMs of 10 parts per billion for "vended water," or water sold from machines, according to Bill Walker, West Coast vice president of the Environmental Working Group.

Studies suggest that exposure above that level can lead to low birth-weight babies and other health problems, Walker said. Water from about two-thirds of the machines also failed to meet Glacier Water's advertising claims that the company's filtering system scrubs out 97 percent of THMs, according to the lawsuit. "It's a question of consumer protection," Walker said. "We tested their machines to see if they're telling the truth and they're not." Water quality in the tested machines varied sharply by county, according to the groups' report.

In San Francisco County, only one out of 15 machines met the state standard, the report said. In Santa Clara County, all 15 tested machines hit the mark.

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