Dozens of community water quality kits were distributed in west Gainesville neighborhoods near the location of a water treatment supplier in late October. County health department officials said residents should not take the test packages as an official warning of water quality problems.
The water quality kits — a plastic bag containing a 13-question survey and a miniature test tube — instructed residents to complete the questionnaire and water sample before retrieval the following morning.
About a month ago, retired couple Ron and Linda Bauer returned to their Jonesville home to find the questionnaire planted in front of their 5-acre property. Ron Bauer, who worked for the United States Postal Service for 37 years, recognized that any government-distributed inquiry would have been distributed via mailbox and with a postage stamp.
The survey the Bauers received was unstamped.
Ron and Linda Bauer depend on private well water and have invested in a home water softening system in the past; but when they have faced water quality concerns, they are savvy enough to turn to Florida’s regional branch of the Environmental Protection Agency for inspection.
The survey left in their driveway last month was titled, “Community Water Test,” and warned, “Your residential water supply may contain more than just H20.” Survey questions, printed in both English and Spanish, ranged from the date of the water sample to the residents’ average weekly grocery bill.
The kits, attached via rubber band to wooden stakes, dotted the private driveways and mailbox locations of many homes along the Bauers’ dirt road, 11 miles from The Science of Water, LLC, a private water treatment supplier, at Northwest 97th Boulevard.
Jack Stoudenmire, owner and CEO of The Science of Water LLC, said the company completes 300 to 400 “bottle drops,” or distributions of the water kits, a day. They serve communities well beyond Gainesville, including cities as far north as Melrose and as far south as Ocala. Stoudenmire said residents generally complete 5-10% of the circulated test kits.
The Science of Water is not affiliated with the Gainesville or Alachua County health departments; they are one among many private water treatment suppliers that have participated in “bottle drops,” a marketing ploy that can play on uninformed citizens’ fear of unsafe tap water.
Stoudenmire said he left his previous water treatment job two years ago to begin his own company, fed up with overly fear-driven marketing campaigns. The water sample kits his company distributes purposefully include a bolded line near the bottom clarifying the test is not a government-mandated request.
Still, his company receives calls from citizens who are fearful after receiving a test kit, to which he always responds: “We are a private company; if you participate, we show you the quality of water you currently have in your home versus what you could have with a Puronics system.”
A Puronics system, supplied by The Science of Water, is a home water treatment system that ranges in price from $1,200 to $10,000 and promises to filter out even trace levels of tap water’s commonly found contaminants.
If a “bottle drop,” or water sample kit, is completed, The Science of Water retrieves it and conducts a free water impurities test; they define impurities as the presence of any unnatural, but not necessarily dangerous, material that would normally be filtered out by a home water treatment system.
“If somebody has a (water treatment) system, it’s gonna turn blue; if somebody doesn’t it’s gonna turn red,” he explained.
Michael Dryhaug, the regional sales manager for The Science of Water, estimated that about 95% of the samples The Science of Water tests are rated as containing impurities. Yet they do not test for bacteria — a primary threat to water quality.
If the test identifies impurities, The Science of Water offers residents a more extensive, in-house water evaluation that measures six categories: hardness, precipitation, chlorine, pH levels and dissolved solids.
Florida’s water is known to be relatively “hard,” thanks to high levels of limestone and calcium, meaning water is more likely to leave residue, as in the case of soap scum. But whether these minerals need to be removed is more a matter of preference than a quality concern.
While water treatment systems are capable of filtering out dangerous contaminants, Dryhaug explained treated water is more attractive primarily for benefits like enhancing its taste, color, odor and feel.
“Water treatment has gotten a bad name,” he said, “and it’s not because of us.”
Anthony Dennis, environmental health director for the Alachua County Health Department, said chemicals like chlorine, sulfur, calcium and iron are mostly aesthetic concerns. In moderate levels, they don’t cause health problems, Dennis said.
The health department has received calls in the past from concerned citizens who have received water test kits, though they have not had specific complaints about those distributed by The Science of Water in the past month. The department’s response: In all cases, bacteria is the primary concern.
High amounts of some chemicals may affect water’s transparency, or in the case of sulfur, its odor. But their presence does not contaminate drinking water.
Calcium, chlorine and sulfur are not even listed at trace levels as water contaminants, according to the latest advisory published by the Florida Department of Health in 2016. Iron, often mistakenly assumed to indicate the presence of lead, is only a concern at concentrations higher than 15 micrograms per liter, according to the report.
“Lead is a buzzword,” Dennis explained.
While lead can be dangerous, especially in homes with children and outdated plumbing, it is not an imminent threat to Alachua County, as some water treatment marketing has implied, Dennis said.
“There are a lot of things (private water treatment companies) test for that you may or may not need to,” Dennis said.
In Alachua County, the health department acknowledges the biggest threats to drinking water apply to residents who rely on a private well or those who live near a known contaminant.
Residents who live in an agricultural area could be at risk for higher nitrate or arsenic levels. The county health department advises those who live in close proximity to a contaminant like a gas station, dry cleaner or a recent natural event — like a sinkhole opening — to contact the county health department if they have concerns.
For those who depend on a private or public well, the Florida Department of Health provides an online resource to educate citizens on risks to well water quality. In addition, the county health department oversees private well water on a concern-driven basis.
For those who depend on public water, water is routinely treated by Gainesville Regional Utilities as mandated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
For any further concerns regarding public or private water safety, Dennis urged residents to reference the Florida Department of Health website or to contact the environmental health officials of the Alachua County Health Department at (352) 334-7900.