There is an ongoing investigation in the state of Florida to examine the practices of certain water treatment companies and the techniques used to sell water filtering equipment. The state Attorney General’s office has been combating these companies for years using sting operations and hidden cameras to catch these scam artists in the act of selling water filters under false pretenses.
Recent video clips have appeared on news reports locally and nationally, showing slick salesmen scaring grandmotherly customers with claims their tap water is contaminated by human waste, microorganisms and toxic chemicals.
In 2009, the Attorney General’s Office found a video as part of a civil action against Don and Robert Madden, the owners of Avian Environmental Services and Environmental Water Works of the Emerald Coast, Inc. In the one-hour training video, a mock sales call makes the following false claims about a customer’s water:
- Tests suggest the presence of “feces or fertilizer” in public drinking water.
- A Mayo Clinic study found that impurities in tap water can “cause blockage in our arteries and heart valves.”
- Chlorine used to disinfect public drinking water can harm consumers by absorption through the skin.
Last October, Panama City Circuit Judge Jim Fensom banned the Maddens and their companies from using misleading water tests or selling water treatment devices and ordered them to pay $5.9 million in consumer restitution and civil fines. Fensom also ordered the Maddens to make it clearthey are not affiliated with any government water departments, a ruse that some salespeople use to get in the door.
Most dealers in the $3 billion-a-year industry, its representatives say, are honest sellers of equipment for removing chlorine and minerals and softening water from public utilities or private wells. They say rogue operations selling equipment at inflated prices through scare tactics and misleading information are the exception. Misleading water tests that measure hardness and chlorine levels but purport to uncover contamination violate the code of ethics of the association, which has 2,300 vendor members.
As a general rule, if consumers are uncertain about these types of water treatment products or the salespeople who sell them, they should contact their local public health agency or water utility to verify the “facts”. If a consumer’s tap water is being challenged by the salesperson, they can ask the utility company for the Annual Water Quality Report that they are required to make available by EPA regulations..
(Chris Wiant, M.P.H., Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Caring for Colorado Foundation. He is also chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.)