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Tainted water scare at Santa Clarita school

April 24, 2009 | 11:20 am

Los Angeles County health officials are investigating whether bottles of water from a vending machine at a Santa Clarita junior high school were contaminated and caused several students to fall ill.

“Samples have been taken to the county lab, where they will do further chemical and biological testing,” said Michael Uyehara, a hazardous materials specialist with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

No definite preliminary results are available yet, Uyehara said. Fire officials were notified when a dozen La Mesa Junior High School students complained of feeling sick Thursday afternoon after drinking Aquafina water from a vending machine, according to Inspector Steve Zermeno of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The FBI and the Sheriff’s Department also were notified.

Twelve children complained of symptoms, such as “a burning in the throat,” Zermeno said. Six were taken to nearby hospitals “for further observation” and were later released in stable condition, he added.

Pat Willett, community liaison for William S. Hart Union School District, said two students initially complained that two bottles of water from the machine “looked funny.”

“They looked cloudy, and the students said they tasted a little soapy,”  Willet said.

Some of the students complained of having headaches and feeling queasy, she said. The symptoms were “fairly minor,” but the students were sent to the emergency room as a safeguard, Willet said.

An agent with the FBI’s hazardous materials team was sent to the school “as a precaution,” said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office

“The FBI gets involved when there is an element of criminal activity, such as tampering,” Eimiller explained. “But there is no evidence to suggest that there is at this time.”

Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for the Pepsi Bottling Group, which manufactures Aquafina, said there is no evidence the incident occurred as a result of anything in the company’s manufacturing process.

“We have examined and tasted numerous bottles that were produced at the same time as those in this case and have found them to be free of any problems whatsoever,” Dahncke said.

He added that the company was working with local authorities to determine  what happened.

“We have no reason to believe that this is more than an isolated incident,” Dahncke said. “We are thoroughly confident in the safety of our product.”

Willet said all water had been removed from the school's vending machines and would be replaced with fresh bottles.

-- Ann M. Simmons