By David H. Martin
Change has always come gradually for the regulation-driven water improvement industry. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) drinking water standards have also strengthened gradually over the years. Third-party product certification has helped increase sales by reassuring the public. Crises come, one by one, and have been met. Some legal; some ethical. Still, some things have changed only incrementally; others not at all. Ion exchange water softeners are still sold in California. Millions of people have felt safer, drinking water from filters costing under $35.
Remember the industry issue of “scare tactics” selling? Until five years ago, it was a serious threat to legitimate water treatment marketers. But in the last two years, complaints had subsided to a level that the Water Quality Association (WQA) felt comfortable in suspending its ethics committee until further notice. It seems people no longer had to be scared into purchasing water filters, at least simple ones. People were better aware and knew what they wanted. And if they didn’t, they could buy inexpensive water test kits to help make up their minds.
Now, since the September 11 terrorist attacks on American soil, it seems everything has changed. The sobering reality of teams of trained terrorists targeting the United States, puts new pressures and concerns into every corner of our daily lives; indeed, into every corner of our minds! When and where will they attack next? How will they attack? Will they poison our air with biological or biochemical warfare? Will they poison our food? And what about our water supplies?
New industry challenges
How will the WQA respond to America’s current military mobilization of reserves? What roles can WQA play in the government’s new “war on world terrorism?”
How will the industry respond to allay people’s fears of deliberate threats to their family’s water supply?
These are questions we had planned to put directly to industry leaders who would have attended the WQA midyear meeting in Sedona, AZ, in September, which was cancelled days after the terrorist attacks. Next month’s column will report on some of their assessments.
Americans can no longer assume that incidental threats to their drinking water are the only kind that should concern them.
Meeting contamination concerns
Within days after the attacks, Chicago and other cities took specific steps to secure its main water filtration plant on the shore of Lake Michigan. Concrete barricades were quickly erected and a new accelerated schedule of water tests was inaugurated. Other cities took similar action. In New York, recreation such as fishing and hiking near the state’s 19 reservoirs was banned. Roads passing over areas of open water are under guard to protect a system that supplies nine million New Yorkers (see Newsreel this issue).
What steps will individual people take to ensure their families of “peace of mind” in the terror era? How will the new threat of deliberate water contamination affect Americans?
Fifty years ago, a considerable number of Americans (not including dentists) feared that the deliberate addition of fluoride to public drinking water was part of “a Communist plot” to poison the country. While public officials and most Americans dismissed this reaction as “pure paronoia,” it gave America a small taste of the post-attack era of terror it faces today. Gradually the fears of fluoride subsided, making fluoridation of public water nearly universal and, ironically, costing America’s dentists untold profits from unnecessary cavities.
This time, the threat of deliberate water contamination is far more credible, and the anxiety more widespread. Many Americans and their government worry that terrorists could unleash illness and death in epidemic proportions by dispensing smallpox, plague or other agents into the air, food or water supplies. The threats stem from either biological or chemical agents.
Effects on marketing
The marketing of bottled water and point-of-entry (POU) devices will surely be affected. Already we’ve heard reports of portable “emergency” water treatment units “selling out” at camping outfitters, not to mention gas masks. Others have stockpiled bottled water in their basements, leaving grocery shelves empty. An article in the September 28 Wall Street Journal suggested that bottled water might actually be more vulnerable to contamination by terrorists than public drinking water supplies.
Will more people seek “peace of mind” by buying “broad spectrum” products (see Sidebar) that may offer the promise of eliminating “fear of the unknown?” Will the new era stimulate a dramatic increase in microbiological water treatment products such as ultraviolet light, ozone and distillation—all known to neutralize the effects of waterborne bacteria and viruses?
Everything has changed since September 11. The water improvement industry has the opportunity and obligation to stand tall in defense of our nation’s water resources in a new era of potential terrorist threats on us. New community educational programs will emerge. Consumer POU product preferences may take a turn toward more serious treatment. One thing is certain—water treatment dealers will be called upon to play multiple roles in this war on terrorism.
About the author
David H. Martin is president of Lenzi Martin Marketing, of Oak Park, Ill., a firm specializing in water improvement and environmental marketing that integrates old and new media. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404, e-mail: [email protected] or website: http://www.lenzimartin.com.
Arming yourself with the right equipment
“Broad spectrum” reduction of contaminants may become more attractive to people
looking for “terrorist protection” in a residential drinking water system. Some systems for homes and offices combine ion exchange, distillation and filtration in a POU cabinet unit that meets the USEPA microbiological water purifier standards.
Will low-end filters be increasingly perceived as “inadequate” by terrorist-concerned
consumers? If that happens, the huge mass market for carbon gravity drip and end-of-faucet filters could sink dramatically.
Will home water testing for specific contaminants take a hit as the price of “peace of mind” escalates?
Era of new opportunities
Water improvement dealers may find themselves in the spotlight when their local media seek experts to explain various treatment technologies available to combat “fear of the unknown.”
Dealers should be careful not to “overplay their hands” in stepping up to their new
“emergency water information” roles in their communities. The last thing the POU/POE (point-of-entry) industry needs is to create even the appearance of a new round of “scare tactics selling.”
Perhaps dealers can sponsor local workshops for educating concerned consumers about the various technologies and options. And, of course, water improvement dealers could organize and lead community volunteer teams to guard vulnerable reservoirs and other surface waterfronts.
New WQA roles
During the Persian Gulf War, terrorists killed an entire unit of U.S. reserve water purification specialists in a planned explosion in the victims’ barracks.
Now, in the new war on terror, it’s anticipated that water purification specialists will be among the first to be called up. This would include the sons, daughters and employees of dealers (if not dealers themselves) who serve in the armed forces reserves.
As another potential step, the WQA could fund a supplementary income support program for dealer member employees who are called overseas. This might be especially reassuring for industry reservists with families to support.
Perhaps the WQA website (www.wqa.org) could offer consumers a special section on “Tips for Protecting Family Water Supplies.” A formalized WQA dealer educational program on the same topic might make it easier for its dealer members to get involved in local workshops for concerned consumers.