Fear and Marketing

Posted February 16th, 2014

Are Water Treatment Dealers Being Too Nice?

by Gene Franks

“Most of the time no one is testing most of the water for most of the chemicals.”

In the wake of the West Virginia chemical leak and subsequent drinking water crisis, a company that markets its advertising services to water treatment professionals put out a statement that says, in part:

No water dealership should ever use scare tactics as a marketing strategy.

In Pinellas County, FL, the municipality actually cautions homeowners in their markets to be aware of companies who . . . try to scare consumers under the guise of public awareness. In Minnesota, the Department of Health is warning homeowners to beware of companies using bottle drops accompanied with misleading and frightening statistics about the local water quality. Our own industry organization, The Water Quality Association,  also takes a hard stance against scare tactics in the WQA Code of Ethics.

But every time another instance of water contamination occurs, it reaffirms people’s concerns with their water. They worry about the levels of prescription drugs and fertilizer run-off in their water and how it might affect their families. They worry about the taste and smell of their water. They worry about studies in the news equating levels of lead [and] arsenic with their children’s development.


Fear has always been a key feature of American marketing.  Whether the product being sold is a physical object or a political slogan, fear always gets people’s attention.

Most of us in the water treatment business don’t descend to the tactic mentioned above — using “drops” (a precipitation test) to conger up bogus deadly contaminants –but we are way too polite, I think, when it comes to talking about genuine health issues involving water.

Many conventional “dealerships” embrace a code of ethics which focuses attention on aesthetic issues (as the marketing company statement suggests) and speak not a word about the hard health-related issues.  This means portraying the failure of soap to lather as a life-and-death dilemma while failing to mention the (literally!) 100,000 or so unregulated, un-tested chemicals that are being sprayed on lawns, peed into toilets,  and leaked into reservoirs from rusted-out tanks.  Since talking about bladder cancer might be viewed as impolite or politically incorrect,  we stick to the real issues,  like spot-free dishes.

I have always been a strong supporter of municipal water systems.  I’m truly impressed by the job they do.  Every day, our local water company takes millions of gallons of  grim-looking lake water and turns it into clear,  mainly pathogen-free liquid that is wonderful for watering lawns, washing cars. flushing toilets, and washing dishes.  The water company also carries out periodic testing,  as mandated by law, of a short list of  items that are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.  If their water exceeds standards in any of the EPA’s regulated contaminants–like Lindane or chloroform or lead–they are required to notify us. What we aren’t often told, though, is that there are thousands upon thousands of known but unregulated chemicals, plus certainly thousands of unknown chemicals, that are not being regulated by the EPA or tested for by the water company or by anyone else. By “unknown chemicals,” I mean compounds that haven’t yet been discovered.  As a single example, we had been using chlorinated water for decades before the spin-off byproducts of chlorination that are now regulated by the EPA were discovered.

These chemicals should be a concern, and I think we should be worried about them.  Worried enough to tell our customers that there is a real danger from chemicals that no one has heard of or no one is testing for coming into our homes.

It is naive to believe that the recent West Virginia chemical incident is unique or to be reassured because the water company eventually turned off the water.  In reality, the water provider “discovered” the obscure chemical not because they were testing for it but because it had a strong, odor and because their customers smelled it and called in complaints. Had the chemical been colorless, odorless, and tasteless,  it would certainly have gone unreported and unnoticed unless it caused immediate and severe symptoms in water users.

It would be equally naive to not suspect that chemical and biological contaminants go unnoticed in public water systems with a fair degree of regularity.  It has been suggested, for example, that much of what is assumed to be food poisoning is often mild sickness caused by water contamination.  Highly publicized cases show that military bases have delivered chemically contaminated water to soldiers and their families over a decade or more before the situation was brought to light.

A fact about public water supplies that should not be forgotten is one that I read over thirty years ago: “Most of the time no one is testing most of the water for most of the contaminants.”

I think that instead of fretting so much about saving laundry soap we should be talking about protecting ourselves from chemicals and microbes, not because we are nervous nellies but because we are practical people.  We  put locks on our doors and circuit breakers on our electrical boxes to protect against the unexpected.  We should also have carbon filters as a barrier against chemicals, known and unknown, plus a superb drinking water system like reverse osmosis, the most comprehensive in-home protection against water contaminants.  And as infrastructure ages and the pipes that carry water to our homes lose their integrity, we should be more concerned about microbes as well, making ultraviolet a sensible addition even to homes receiving municipal water.

As a vendor of water treatment equipment, I don’t plan to start scaring people with bogus tests, but I am going to start being more forthcoming  with information about the real dangers we face in our chemical-laden world.