BOTTLED WATER MAKES WAVES ABOUT PARASITE PROBLEM IN WISCONSIN

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A national drinking water company has tapped into the issue of the safety of Milwaukee's water supply.

In a four-week radio campaign that ended April 15, Hinckley & Schmitt Bottled Water Group ran a spot directed at the area's recent recurrence of cryptosporidium. The parasite was responsible for an epidemic in Milwaukee in April 1993 that made thousands of people sick and was cited as a factor in dozens of deaths.

In Racine, just south of Milwaukee near the Illinois border, two boil advisories were issued in March after tests revealed possible contaminants in the water, with one test showing an indication of cryptosporidium. Then in April came reports that tests conducted at 10 surface water sample sites in the Milwaukee area found the parasite in five locations. Local health officials were quick to point out, however, that surface water isn't the same as treated drinking water.

The spot from Englewood, Colo.-based Hinckley & Schmitt, sparked by the Racine case, ran on several radio stations in Milwaukee and one in Racine. "Given the heightened awareness in the area of cryptosporidium, we wanted to make sure people knew there was an alternative," said Bill Holbrook, VP-marketing.

At the height of last year's outbreak, the company shipped in 80,000 gallons to Milwaukee, about 10 times the normal amount.

Since then, sales have tapered to about 12,000 cases in January but rose to 20,000 in March, company officials said.

In the 60-second spot from the Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder, Colo., a man says Milwaukee has made it illegal to have fish fries on Fridays and that Illinois drivers never break the speed limit-two facts known in the market to be false. The third statement: "We get our drinking water from the tap-it's fine." Then the announcer says, "Are you sure? Years ago, you never questioned the water, but lately it seems you don't know what to expect."

"The basic idea behind the commercial is that many people are unsure about the water," said Dick Stevens, Sterling exec VP. "The premise of the spot was to ask the question `Are you sure?' Our point here is that you can be absolutely sure of the water when you drink Hinckley & Schmitt bottled water."

Health Commissioner Paul Nannis said Milwaukee's drinking water has shown no signs of contamination since last year's outbreak and the city is far ahead of the rest of the country in monitoring water quality. "They're trying to capitalize on a problem that we had with our drinking water ... I think it's unfortunate that the public continues to get misinformation on the current status of water in Milwaukee and elsewhere," Mr. Nannis said.

The Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based industry consultancy, estimates about 2.5 billion gallons of bottled water will be sold in the U.S. this year, up 7.1% from '93.

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