FRAMINGHAM — Concerned about a 500 percent increase in water quality complaints, the state and town are monitoring Nestle’s Poland Spring bottling plant on Pennsylvania Avenue.
State and town inspectors first visited the facility in April, looking for the cause of unpleasant taste, odor and sickness reported by some Poland Spring home and office delivery customers.
Nestle, which bottles predominantly Poland Spring brand products here, has identified the source as a bacterium that regulators say poses aesthetic concerns, but no health threat.
Nestle says it has taken steps to correct the problem.
“This is not a Mickey Mouse operation,” town Public Health Director Ethan Mascoop said last week. “It’s a large, professionally run plant but, yet, in any plant like this one, something can go wrong.”
Stamford, Conn.-based Nestle Waters told officials they had noticed a sharp increase in complaints over the past year about water bottled in Framingham.
There were 3,573 complaints involving taste and odor and 54 complaints about illness between last September and April that trace back to the plant at 105 Pennsylvania Ave., near the Southborough line, the company says.
Those figures compare to 535 complaints about odor and taste between September 2009 and April 2010, and 24 about illness, according to correspondence with the state Department of Public Health and the town’s Board of Health.
“This is not to battle Nestle, but we see these results as being very much of a concern,” Mascoop said.
The company says the number of complaints are minuscule, considering the plant produces up to 2,500 3- and 5-gallon bottles per hour. The complaints represent only 0.03 percent of all the bottles produced at the Framingham plant, or three in 10,000.
The question is whether that slight risk is acceptable.
“In my opinion,” Mascoop said, “no, it’s not.”
Nestle says it found elevated levels of heterotrophic plate count bacteria, which naturally occurs in water and isn’t regulated. It also found “very low” levels of volatile organic compounds, a byproduct.
In an April letter to the town, Nestle cited statements from the World Health Organization, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration about the bacteria being harmless.
It is, however, “associated with aesthetic concerns,” wrote Charles Broll, vice president, general counsel and secretary for Nestle Waters North America.
“Most bottles are fine, but a small percentage of the 3-gallon and 5- gallons had this off-taste and odor — not a health risk, not a safety risk,” Nestle spokeswoman Jane Lazgin said.
She said the corrective measures appear to be working.
“The rate of complaints in May are down,” she said of the people who have contacted the company directly, as opposed to the state or town, with problems.
The state Department of Public Health contacted the town Board of Health after fielding six complaints that, it says, were traced back to the plant.
Among the sickness complaints Nestle tracks, customers have complained about a “foul taste,” the water being slimy, sandy, soapy, tasting like chlorine and having black or brown particles floating in it.
Customers reported that their dogs became ill after drinking the water, and that humans had nausea and stomach aches.
In response, Nestle started using water that went through reverse osmosis to rinse recycled bottles, rather than tap water, and different caps, among other changes, Framingham Board of Health Inspector Felix Zemel said. Inspectors suspected that complaints could possibly be tied to peeling paint on some pipes and water droplets from condensation that were falling from overhead pipes near the bottle rinsing area, Zemel said.
Both could affect the water quality, he said.
Nestle trucks spring water from Maine to the Framingham plant to bottle Poland Spring.
A small number of bottles on the production line are filled with filtered tap water from the municipal system, branded as Ice Mountain, Zemel said.
He described the elaborate process Nestle uses to wash and sanitize its recycled bottles for reuse and to filter water. The imported spring water is stored in silos on site, then treated with ultraviolet light and an ozone injection to become Poland Spring, he said.
Elsewhere, the company produces Arrowhead, Deer Park, Nestle Pure Life, Perrier and San Pellegrino, among other brands.
The state Department of Public Health says inspectors from the town and state will pay the Framingham plant more frequent visits due to the complaints.