Man hospitalized in Bronx after drinking bottled water
by GRAHAM RAYMAN AND RON HOWELL
Staff Writer

A Bronx gas station worker became the fourth person hospitalized with a burning mouth and stomach pains after drinking tainted bottled water that smelled of bleach or ammonia, authorities said yesterday.

Jose Edouardo Peņa fell ill about noon yesterday after he took a few sips from a bottle of Aquafina water at a Getty gas station at 1915 Bruckner Blvd., police and his boss, Wilfredo Crespo, said.

Peņa, 28, was taken to Jacobi Medical Center, where he was treated and later released, police said.

"He had a burning sensation in his mouth and stomach pains,” said Crespo, who has known Peņa for several years. "My sister said his eyes were red, he looked very flustered and he kept spitting up. People are... crazy. What would make somebody want to do that?”

As police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation probed the quartet of incidents yesterday, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said he was notified of the first three incidents on Tuesday night.

He said health officials spent all day Wednesday analyzing the information before releasing it late Wednesday. He denied that he decided to disclose the three cases only after receiving an inquiry from a reporter.

"We cannot draw the conclusion that the cases are linked,” Giuliani said. "And the timing of the disclosure of it was all for internal reasons in terms of .getting the information together.”

The first incident occurred on Aug. 3, when a woman at a restaurant on West 56th Street in Manhattan felt a burning sensation and her mouth began bleeding after drinking from a glass of Perrier that a waiter opened and poured for her. Then on Aug. 27, a man drinking a bottle of Aquafina he bought at a deli at 719 Ninth Ave. in midtown suffered a burning in his throat. And on Sept. 6, an 18-month-old boy became sick after his mother gave him a bottle of Poland Spring water she bought at a store at 3428 Broadway in Manhattan.

Early tests by the city Health Department on water in the first three incidents showed the presence of cleaning fluids, officials said Wednesday night. Other tests were also being conducted.

The four New York cases appeared to be the first U.S. instances of bottled water tampering.

"I have never heard of it before in the industry,” said Kathleen Ransome of Hidell-Eyster International, a Massachusetts firm that is a consultant to the bottled water and beverage industries.

"Perrier had their benzene crisis in 1990, which led to a worldwide recall in 1991, but that did not constitute a public threat,” she said. "They did it in the interest of maintaining consumer confidence. I know of no other incidents with retail products.”

Peņa bought a bottle of the water from a vending machine, police said. Peņa told other co-workers, including Crespo's sister, who called Crespo to report what had happened. Peņa gave the bottle of water to paramedics.

Once the ambulance arrived, police responded and shut down the vending machine. Crespo said he pulled the rest of the unopened bottles.

Department of Health Inspector Compton Tucker arrived several hours later, removed some of the bottles and placed them in his car.

"He took some of the bottles of water that were suspicious that were lacking serial numbers, to be tested,” Crespo said.

Throughout the afternoon, customers at the gas station expressed shock at the incident.

"Of course I'm concerned about getting contaminated,” said Jamila Richards, 26. "Right now, I'm just getting a can of soda.”

"This could be a little scary, yeah,” said Peņa's co-worker Janet Aguero.

Crespo had 36 bottles of the water remaining yesterday, some of which were delivered last week. "The Aquafina comes in an open box, but all the other drinks come in enclosed boxes,” he said.

"Every bottle of Aquafina should have an inkjet code,” said Larry Jabbonski, a spokesman for Pepsi, which bottles Aquafina. "I can tell you very definitively that every product we bottle has a specific production code that tells us where it was made, when it was made, from the second of production.”

Of the two cases linked to bottles of Aquafina, Jabbonski said: "We are confident this is not a manufacturing issue.”