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Part II: California Town's Water Tainted With Arsenic For Decades


KETTLEMAN CITY (KPIX 5) -- There is a town in the Central Valley where the drinking water is so contaminated, residents haven't been able to drink it for decades.

It turns out you may have unknowingly consumed it yourself. We're talking about water laced with arsenic, a powerful carcinogen. If you've ever driven to Los Angeles you've likely had at least a taste of it.

It's one of the busiest fast food strip malls along I-5. Hundreds of travelers a day stop in Kettleman City for a bite to eat and drink. But next time you press that soda tab, there's something you may want to know: Kettleman City's water is contaminated with arsenic at levels well above the federal limit.

It's so bad that local residents like Maricela Mares Alatorre get drinking water delivered every two weeks. "I think people have become immune to the fact that our water quality is so poor that you cannot actually drink it," she said.

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But fast food restaurants here use tap water to prepare food, and even pipe the water into the soda fountains to mix soft drinks. Is it safe? We decided to check it out.

We took samples of water from In-N-Out, Carl's Junior and Taco Bell. We also took a sample from Maricela's kitchen sink. And we brought the four samples to be tested at a lab in San Jose.

All of them came back well above the EPA maximum contaminant level for arsenic, which is 10-parts-per billion.

In our samples Carl's Junior and Maricela's water contained 16 parts per billion of arsenic.  In-N-Out and Taco Bell: 15.

We took the results to Craig Steinmaus, a world reknowned arsenic expert at UC Berkeley and director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Program.

He's been studying the health effects of long term exposure to arsenic in a region of Chile where levels are at least ten times higher than what we found in Kettleman City. "We have seen 4, 5 fold increase in lung cancer, 7 fold increase rates of bladder cancer, 11 fold increase rates of kidney cancer," said Professor Steinmaus.

"If you take those risks and you actually linearly extrapolate down to what is the estimated risk at 10, that estimated risk is actually fairly high," said Steinmaus. He says stopping once or twice at the fast food restaurants on I-5: "Your risk may not be zero, but it's going to be close enough to zero." But he says you may want to think twice before making a habit out of it, especially if you're pregnant or have kids.

Eric Schaeffer a former head of enforcement for the EPA who now heads the Environmental Integrity Project takes that advice a step further: "If that is a problem that persists in those fast food chains

you do need to tell people, because you have folks around the area who may depend on those restaurants for a lot of their diet," said Schaeffer.

He says county health inspectors should be checking arsenic levels in restaurant water, something we confirmed is not happening now. "If you've got a problem that is more than once or twice at a restaurant and your arsenic persists, you should have to put up a sign, saying you've got arsenic that doesn't meet limits, and you should be required to treat it," said Schaeffer.

As for residents who live in Kettleman City and use the water every day to cook and shower, it could potentially be much more serious. "It's kind of like cigarette smoking. It's not like you smoke a single cigarette and get lung cancer the next day. It usually takes 20, 30, and sometimes 40 or 50 years," said Steinmaus.

Maricela knows the risk, but doesn't see a way out any time soon. "I think people have become immune to the fact that our water quality is so poor that you cannot actually drink it. Well we are not doing anything wrong. What is wrong is the water situation, that needs to be fixed," said Maricela.

In-N-Out statement:

We were very concerned when we heard about the issues with the water supplied by the Kettleman City Community Service District. We were also surprised to hear of the test results from KPIX 5.  We have water filtration systems in all of our restaurants. Tests of the drinking water in our Kettleman City restaurant show that the filtration system works well to make the water safe to drink by reducing contaminants to safe levels.  Nevertheless, we have found an even more effective filtration system and, out of an abundance of caution, we installed this much more substantial filter at that location to provide an extra layer of protection and comfort.  Here at In-N-Out Burger, nothing is more important to us than the health and well-being of our customers and associates.

Carl Van Fleet - Vice President, Planning and Development, In-N-Out Burger

Taco Bell statement:

The safety of our customers and team members is our number one priority.   Our franchisee is aware of water quality issues in Kettleman City and has conducted tests and installed a filter to improve the taste of the water. Out of an abundance of caution, our franchisee will voluntarily begin using only bottled water in the kitchen and will serve bottled water and bottled/canned beverages until a solution is found. 

Carl's Junior statement:

We'll defer to the city to speak about any municipal water issues at this time. 


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