Testing the Waters

Feb. 26, 2003
Are water filtration salespeople cashing in on terrorism fears?

With war on the horizon and the country on guard against terrorism, water has become just one more thing to worry about — and don’t think some of the people who sell those expensive home water filtration systems haven’t noticed. In this hidden camera investigation, some salespeople are now claiming their devices will protect you not just from impurities, but also from acts of terrorism against your town’s water supply. Do they? And are they really worth thousands of dollars? Chief consumer correspondent Lea Thompson reports.

Imagine a salesman telling you your water contained a dangerous gas, or that the water you were drinking could cause a heart attack. "Dateline NBC" has been investigating water filter salesmen, and from what we have found, the truth about your water may be the first thing down the drain when they show up at your door.

Ellen and Richard Eades had been drinking their West Virginia tap water for decades. Then a water filter salesman came to perform a free water test last year. As he added some drops to a sample of their tap water, the Eades were stunned to see how their water changed color almost instantly.

"It looked like sludge," says Ellen. "I’m thinking, ‘What is this we’re putting in our body?’"

Before they knew it, that free test turned into an hour-long sales pitch. First, the salesman scared Ellen and Richard into believing their water might be dangerous. Then he convinced them his water filter would not only clean up their water but even clear up her skin.

The Eades paid $4,000 for something called a reverse osmosis system made by Kinetico. But after a few months, Ellen’s psoriasis wasn’t any better.

"It was something that was put to us as a fantastic deal that would do wonders," says Richard, "and we got left holding the bag."

The fact is, unless you have a private well, almost all water in the United States goes through a filtration plant before it ever gets to you, and it has to pass strict federal standards for safety before it is piped into your home. That doesn’t mean water filters are worthless — they can remove minerals, chemicals and sediment that affect the way water tastes or feels, but "Dateline" heard that some water filter salesmen were taking their sales pitches a whole lot further.

So, we asked Shirley Jones, a West Virginia homeowner, to help us with an experiment. First, we made sure her water met federal safety standards. We even had it tested by a certified lab, which found no health concerns or problems.

Then, we had Shirley call three companies — all the local dealers of nationally distributed water filter systems. Each was offering a free water test. None were aware our cameras were rolling.

The Culligan man gets right to his tests. He finds only that our homeowner’s water is a little hard, a little high on mineral content, but is not unsafe to drink. This salesman is up front about that.

Culligan salesman: "I’m not here to scare you."

Shirley: Okay."

Culligan salesman: "I’m not here to, you know, to beat on your drum. I’m not going to stay two hours to try to make you buy something."

When she says she’s not ready to buy, he thanks her and leaves.

Ed: The harder water is the greater chance you have of developing gallstones and kidney stones."

Gallstones? Kidney Stones? And if that isn’t enough to scare her, he tells her sometimes the chlorine is way too high in her area.

Ed: Do you remember in World War II — you hear about mustard gas?"

Shirley: Yeah, I’ve heard of mustard gas."

Ed: One of the components of mustard gas , and that was, you know, a killing tool, was a portion of that mustard gas was chlorine."

Is she supposed to think her drinking water will kill her? No, he adds, chlorine at safe levels is necessary to kill dangerous bacteria. But he says, all those dead "bugs" remain in tap water.

Ed: "With the chlorine in the water, you’re still drinking those bugs."

But Ed the salesman says his Kinetico reverse osmosis "RO" filter, hers for about $3,000, will make her water absolutely safe. It will remove even the unthinkable.

Ed: Experts tell us the most common, potential thing that terrorists might put in the water would be arsenic, you know, like rat poison. This RO system is designed to completely take out arsenic."

But since we told her not to purchase anything, Shirley Jones shows him the door.

She re-opens it to another water filter company selling Rainsoft filters. Before these two men even do a water test, a salesman named Rick says he knows there’s way too much chlorine in her water. So much, he says, it would be like drinking bleach.

Rick: You drink your, drink some of your bleach what would happen?"

Shirley: You get sick."

Rick: Yeah, very sick, okay? Number two is is the chlorine gas, ‘cause that stuff will kill you concentrated like that — not what’s coming out of your tap, but again, keep inhaling, keep inhaling that’s not healthy for you either."

All this bad news before his partner, Raphael, even drops his mystery chemicals into her tap water, turning it a different color. Actually, Raphael finds the chlorine level okay, but the water, he says, is too alkaline: there are too many minerals in it.

Rick comes back to the table, insisting his Rainsoft RO system will clean her water and, here it comes again, will protect her from terrorists.

Rick: You know the big anthrax scare we had?"

Shirley: "Yeah, you mentioned."

Rick: Point five microns. All right? An RO system cleans down to .0009 microns."

The cost of the Rainsoft filter is $2,000. Shirley says no thanks, but Rick won’t let go.

Rick: You want to get this done.

Shirley: Not today. Not going to do it today. Not going to do it today."

Rick: Let me finish... "

Shirley: Go ahead finish, but... "

Rick: If we can get together on this...

Shirley: Not today."

Rick: You’re looking roughly about a $50 payment."

Shirley: No. Not today. Sorry."

Rick: "Why not?"

He is so persistent that the battery to our hidden camera begins running out of energy before he does.

Rick: About $50-a-month is all you’re looking at.

Shirley: Well, we’ll think about it."

Rick: You can afford $50-a-month."

After more than an hour, Rick and Raphael finally leave, just as our camera battery goes to black."

Talk about a hard sell. And if there’s anyone who knows about the questionable tactics some salesmen use to push water filters, it’s Bill Shanklin.

Bill used to work for Ed, the salesman, Ed Wise. Shanklin says Wise’s company deceived customers, right from the start.

Lea Thompson: You knew you were walking in the door with a lie?"

Shanklin: Right."

While none of the salesmen we taped used it, Shanklin says he was told to do the toilet demonstration. Shanklin says he was supposed to tell homeowners their tap water was the same as the rusty water in their toilet tanks.

Thompson: "You were supposed to tell people that they were drinking toilet water?"

Shanklin: Right."

It was the psychological way of getting them to feel guilty and feel helpless.

Thompson: And to make the sale?"

Shanklin: And to make the sale."

And what about those water tests we watched the salesmen performing? All those drops in all of those vials of tap water, which pull minerals out of the water or turn it a different color. According to water experts we spoke with, those tests really only indicate how water tastes or feels — not whether it’s safe. To determine that, you would need to have your water analyzed by a laboratory certified to test drinking water.

Darrell McGraw is not a water expert, but he knows a scare tactic when he hears one. He is West VIrginia’s attorney general. We showed him what we were told.

McGraw: I have never heard it suggested that some of our health problems in this state are attributable to our water."

Thompson: These salesmen are suggesting that people can not only have heartburn but can have strokes, heart attacks, gall stones, kidney stones, appendicitis by drinking the municipal water supply?"

McGraw: You can’t get those things by drinking the municipal water supply... it’s false and misleading. It’s a fraud."

Thompson: "No question in your mind what you are seeing on these ‘Dateline’ tapes is a fraud."

McGraw: No question in my mind."

West Virginia and other states have received many complaints from consumers about water filter salesmen. McGraw blames the manufacturers, like Rainsoft and Kinetico, for the tactics their dealers use.

"Dateline" asked Rainsoft and Kinetico for on-camera interviews — both declined. But in letters, they say dealers are supposed to follow the industry’s code of ethics, and both acknowledge that despite what we heard from these salesmen, water filters will "not significantly reduce" every type of arsenic and have "not been tested and certified" for their ability to rid "terrorist-induced contaminants." Kinetico also says it had already severed its ties with dealer Ed Wise for his company’s "poor business practices" even before we taped him. But that’s not enough for McGraw.

McGraw: Under our law you are responsible for the activity of these people, and if you don’t do something to remedy this, we’re going to sue you for what they’ve done."

As for Rick and Raphael, the dealer they work for, Advanced Water Solutions, says "hard water does not cause health problems" and "fear tactics ... will not be tolerated." Ed Wise and his company, Crystal Clear Water, had no comment.

That doesn’t surprise Bill Shanklin, who says he quit the water filter business after only a month and one sale.

Thompson: "Do you have guilt?"

Shanklin: Yes, a lot of guilt. How could I try to make a living lying to people and deceiving them?"

That’s a question the Eades would love to put to Ed Wise, the man whose company sold them their system.

Ellen Eades: I feel like we were lied to. And just it it hurts when someone you think is telling you the truth... you find out that they’re lying."

The West Virginia Attorney General’s office has determined that Kinetico did not engage in any direct misconduct in connection with the practices of Ed Wise. The company told "Dateline" it was outraged by the salesman’s action. And it’s signed an agreement with the state to give a complete refund to any customer who bought a system from Ed Wise and wants it removed. The Eades have gotten all their money back. State officials also tell "Dateline" they are close to a refund agreement with Rainsoft. That company says it has severed its relationship with Rick and Raphael’s dealer, Advanced Water Solutions.

Source: Dateline NBC