Water dispensed for a fee by vending machines at supermarkets often has a far higher bacterial count than good old tap water, officials at two Southern California health agencies said this week.
While the higher counts do not represent a clear health danger, the officials said they indicate that some of the machines may be dispensing water that is unclean and does not meet the quality standards vending companies promise consumers.
"If it was myself, my family, my friends, I'd say don't drink the water from the vending machines. Microbes should not be growing in water, certainly not at these levels," said Mark Buehler, director of water quality for the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies the bulk of Southern California water, including 60% of the water in Orange County.
"You're safer drinking the tap water," Buehler said. "Not only are you safer, but you're paying, oh, let's see, about 250 times less per gallon."
The warning from health officials reflects the findings of an extensive yearlong study by the Environmental Toxicology Bureau of the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures Department, as well as the results of a small random sampling that the water district did earlier this year.
"The public," the study concluded, "is paying for water quality it is not getting."
No Orange County vending machines were tested in the two studies. But for users of the roughly 700 vending machines in Orange County and the more than 9,000 statewide, the suggestion by health officials was to turn on their faucets at home instead.
The supermarket vending machines take tap water and process it to eliminate chlorine and other substances that are not harmful but that many consumers find unpleasant tasting.
If the carbon filters in the machines are not replaced regularly, if spigots are dirty or if the machine's germicidal treatment processes don't remove contaminants as they should, they become a rich breeding ground for bacteria, said Marty Rigby, assistant general manager of the Orange County Water District, which maintains the county's ground water supply.
"These filters are a wonderful medium for the growth of bacteria. In fact, they are often made from the same materials scientists use to grow bacteria in labs," Rigby said.
"Over time, those filters get gummed up and get yucky stuff on them and simply need to be replaced. You are really relying as a consumer on the reputation of the vending machine company to make sure that they service the machines and change their filters. If they don't, you can end up with worse water from a poorly maintained facility than you would get from the tap water that goes into it."
The vending machine industry has been licensed by the state Health Services Department since 1989. But the agency does not inspect vending machines or the water they dispense, relying instead on vendors to test the water and send in their results.
A top food and drug scientist with the state agency, Chang Lee, defended the department's noninspection policy Friday. He said that because the vending machines use water that already has been certified as drinkable by local water providers and because the levels of bacteria found in the two studies were below acceptable limits, "there is no public health concern at this time."
But the state's food and drug division chief, Stuart E. Richardson Jr., acknowledged that it appears some of the vending machines have not been adequately maintained.
As a result, he said, California plans to start a statewide sampling program to randomly test the machines and the water in them.
Regular or even one-time inspections of all the vending machines in the state would be prohibitively expensive, Lee said.
About 85% of the vending machines statewide are operated by Glacier Water of Carlsbad.
Al Aulwurm, a safety specialist at the company, said water from his company's vending machines is safe to drink and worth the money. "I consider it very safe," he said. "I drink it every day."
Aulwurm said the company changes its carbon filters more often than required by the state, and he welcomes statewide testing of the machines. "If there are some disreputable water companies out there," Aulwurm said, "they would be exposed."
The Los Angeles County study found that the average bacterial count in the 279 vending machines it tested registered 1,306 parts per billion of bacteria. That's 163 times the level of bacteria in tap water, which, at 8 ppb, is just under the state regulatory limit, the study said.
Though certain bacteria can be dangerous, such as fecal coliform, the study found that most samples contained bacteria that came from common organic compounds, which are not necessarily a health risk.
But it also found that 38% of the water sampled from vending machines contained levels of trihalomethane that exceeded the state regulatory limit of 10 ppb. Trihalomethane, a byproduct of disinfecting water with chlorine, has been associated with increased cancer risk in laboratory animals and increased risk of miscarriages for women in their first trimester of pregnancy who drank five or more glasses daily of water containing 75 ppb of the chemical.
"Some of these [samples] are higher than 75 [ppb of] trihalomethanes," said Wasfy W. Shindy, deputy director of the Environmental Toxicology Bureau.
And 2% of the vending machine samples had water with levels of lead that exceeded the state regulatory limit, the study found.
About 15% of the machines tested advertised their water as "purified," and 62% contained dissolved solids exceeding state limits, the study said.
The sampling by the water district was hardly as scientific. In it, agency officials tested water from perhaps six vending machines in Los Angeles County.
Water from each of the machines had "relatively high levels of microbial activity, certainly high enough to cause concerns," Buehler said.
Buehler said all of the vending machines tested had dirty spigots.
"You have no way of knowing what the person who used it before you did," Buehler said. "The one advantage of tap water is at least no one can get their fingers into your pipes."
Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this report.