Thursday, March 4, 2004

Bottled water has become a top-selling item at District restaurants as cautious customers avoid potentially lead-contaminated tap water. Sales of the bottled alternative at some eateries have more than doubled.

“People are conscious of what’s going on, and I think they just want to be healthy,” said Tommy Jacomo, general manager of the Palm on 19th Street NW. “But there’s no panic involved.”

Bottled-water sales at the upscale restaurant have increased 5 percent to 10 percent since the news about high levels of lead in city drinking water broke last month.

Despite Old Ebbitt Grill’s filtered tap water, patrons are requesting $2.25 bottled water, said David Moran, general manager of the restaurant on 15th Street in Northwest.

“That shows you where the general public’s comfort level is,” he said.

Sales of bottled water have just about doubled over the past month, Mr. Moran said.

About 23,000 homes in the District are served by lead service pipes, according to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA). Samples taken at more than 4,000 homes since 2002 have found lead levels well above the safe range of 15 parts per billion.

Five city residents among 169 screened for lead exposure over the weekend were found to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams. D.C. Department of Health officials say it is too early to determine whether contaminated tap water is to blame.

But many restaurant patrons, particularly local residents, aren’t taking any chances.

Manuel Iguina, general manager at Cafe Atlantico, is ordering cases of bottled water every week to keep up with the demand. Usually 10 cases last the restaurant a couple of weeks. But now the shipment lasts sometimes less than one week.

The restaurant on Eighth Street in Northwest, which filters its water, sold 270 bottles of water in January. Last month it sold about 600 bottles, Mr. Iguina said.

Bottled-water sales were up 20 percent in February at the McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant on K Street NW. The restaurant, which filters its tap water, has increased inventories to keep up with the demand.

“We’re not taking tap water away until we hear from the health department,” said Pam Milley, McCormick & Schmick’s operations manager.

The D.C. Department of Health last week issued an advisory warning pregnant mothers and young children against drinking tap water in any of the 23,000 residences that are likely to have a lead service line.

WASA officials said the problems of lead contamination is most common in homes built during the first half of the 20th century. High lead levels were found in the Capitol Hill and Adams Morgan sections of the city.

Grocery stores also have had an increase in bottled-water sales.

Giant Food’s six locations in the District have had an uptick in sales of all brands of bottled water for the last two to three weeks.

“Last week in particular we had a significant increase in sales of bottled waters in our District stores,” said Jamie Miller, spokesman for the grocery chain.

When news of the high lead levels broke, the stores made sure they were adequately stocked and keeping up with demand, Mr. Miller said.

Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle said it’s difficult to determine whether the recent increased sales of bottled water is a result of inclement weather in February or the lead-poisoning scare.

Safeway’s Eastern division, which includes the 16 stores in the District, sells the most bottled water of any division in the company.

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