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Uncorking the Bottled-Water Claims

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

As background, though, it should be explained that MIP (mortgage insurance premium) is required on all homes sold with FHA insurance backing up the lender. It protects the lender (and to a certain degree the FHA too) in the event of default--a cushion that is deemed necessary because of the low down payment permitted under the FHA’s rules and, by inference, the higher risk in such loans.

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(Similar insurance is also required under conventional financing if the down payment on the property is less than 20% of the selling price.)

Rules Were Changed

One of the problems here, however, Stillio says, is that the rules were changed by FHA a couple of years ago, and it muddies the water just a tad.

Under the old or the new plan, though, it isn’t an automatic rebate after a specified number of years (as a matter of fact he doesn’t know where you found the seven-year figure). The rebate rule applies only when you sell the house. However, if you sell the house and someone assumes your mortgage, you’re not entitled to anything, because the new owner assumes the insurance too.

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And the refunds are only made possible, of course, because traditionally the pooled money collected by Uncle Sam in the form of premiums has exceeded the losses actually incurred.

Prior to the change in the FHA rules, the premium (on a single-family home) was amortized over the life of the mortgage, and when you sold it, you were entitled to a refund. The longer you had lived in the house, the more, proportionately, you got back, Stillio says, even though you didn’t become eligible for anything until about the 10th year. (You got back 90% of the first year’s premiums, 78% of the second year’s, and so on.) You may have bought your home under this arrangement, Stillio adds, and, if you did, it will show up on your mortgage-payment card, where the monthly payment is broken down by principal, interest, taxes, insurance and so forth.

If there is an itemization “for $4 (or some such figure) for MIP,” he continues, it means you are eligible, providing you’ve lived there at least 10 years. And the refund is automatic, if heel-dragging. You should get your prorated check in three to six months.

If no such notation appears, it means you’ve definitely got something coming back, because the situation falls under the new FHA plan, which requires the buyer to pay up front the whole MIP--amounting to 3.8% of the mortgage. However, unlike the old plan, the longer you have lived in the house the less you get back, proportionately.

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If that doesn’t confuse you enough, try me on a solid geometry question.

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.


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