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Concert vendors turn water into dough

When the temperature goes up, so does the profit at outdoor concerts, where high-priced bottled water can mean the difference between life and death.

It's afternoon at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, there's not a scrap of shade, and the mercury has hit 108. Thousands of sweaty kids are here for one of the summer's biggest concerts, the Vans Warped Tour.

From his seat at the first aid station, Chief John Hackett of the Orlando Fire Department looks out into the dancing, half-naked crowd. He can't even speculate how hot it must be inside the mosh pit, where bodies collide in rhythm. He can only treat the steady stream of kids who come to him suffering from heat exhaustion.

It's easily cured by drinking water. Lots of it.

But water is an expensive antidote at large concerts. Promoters cash in on the heat by selling bottled water at high markups: $2 a bottle at the Warped Tour, and as much as $4 for a 16-ounce bottle at the recent Woodstock '99. The high water prices were even cited as a cause of the mini-riot at the fiery end of Woodstock.

Concertgoers are not allowed to bring water into the show. Nor are they told at the door where they can get free water. The result: high traffic at the first aid station.

"We were overwhelmed with heat-related cases," Hackett said. "We treated 70 to 80 people, but hundreds more came in just to cool down."

Hackett said things were even worse at the Lollapalooza tour several years ago, where there were nearly twice as many cases of heat exhaustion, which is marked by profuse sweating, nausea, headaches and general weakness.

Untreated, it can lead to death.

In one day at Woodstock '99, emergency medical crews treated more than 400 people for heat exhaustion and dehydration. Two people died of heat-related causes during the three-day event, including St. Petersburg resident Frank Wayne Cooper, 31, who worked with learning-disabled children at Bay Point Middle School.

Prevention seems simple: Just stay hydrated.

Under moderate conditions, the body needs about 2 liters of water a day. But a person can lose up to a liter of water per hour during prolonged exercise. Hot environmental conditions can double the rate of water loss.

That's $8 an hour for bottled water at the Warped Tour. Getting that much water is tough if a concertgoer's cash flow runs dry, often a factor for the mostly teenage and 20-something crowd at these events.

But even if money is no object, supply can be.

Hackett said that at one point during the show, kids were coming to him because the vendors ran out of bottled water. He passed out cups and directed them to the bathroom sink.

"There's definitely a problem when people don't know where they can get water, especially when it's super hot," he said. "Maybe it's not that we need to provide more water, we just need to tell people where they can get it."

Creating demand

Dave Hundley, a St. Petersburg concert promoter, is upfront about why the State Theater _ like many dance clubs and night spots _ doesn't have a water fountain.

"If you don't want to pay an arm and a leg to see a show, we have to make a profit at the bar," Hundley said. "Especially at a lot of our punk shows, where people aren't old enough to buy alcohol. On those nights, the bar is decimated. Most kids expect to pay an extra $5 (for water) when they get inside."

But the air-conditioned State Theater doesn't compare to an outdoor festival during a summer of record heat, where $5 won't buy nearly enough water to stay hydrated.

Safety-savvy concertgoers who plan for the heat by bringing their own water find that their containers must be emptied or their contents consumed before going into the show. Promoters, worried about minors sneaking alcohol into a show, say it's because of liability.

But what about factory-sealed bottles? They're not allowed either, promoters say, because capped bottles are stiff and can be thrown or used as weapons. And a seal doesn't mean the contents haven't been adulterated.

"People are very ingenious," said Charlie Price, general manager of the Central Florida Fairgrounds. "I've seen a person use a hypodermic needle to put grain alcohol into a closed bottle. One person even brought in a bottle of Pepto Bismol, half full of vodka. We'd prefer if people didn't bring anything at all to a concert."

Except, maybe, their wallets.

In hot weather, soda and beer usually don't sell well. Caffeine and alcohol can actually rob the body of water, contributing to dehydration. That gives the bottled water vendors a virtual monopoly on concession sales.

Water prices are high partly because of the demand, but mostly because vendors operate under a contract with the venue or the concert promoters, who reap a percentage of the profits. That's why a bottle of water that costs less than a dollar at a convenience store rapidly multiplies in price.

At the Warped Tour, vendors al so sold paper cups of ice for $1.45 each.

"When large shows like the Warped Tour come to town, people are going to take advantage of the crowds," Hundley said. "Some people look at it as they are being greedy, and in some cases, they are."

An alternative source

According to the Florida Department of Health, any permanent facility used by the public must have restrooms with piped, potable water. Fountains are optional.

Jack Pittman of the Department of Health and Bureau of Facility Programs said that tap water is more stringently regulated than bottled water, so people should have no concerns about its safety.

So if safe, free water is readily available, why aren't hot concertgoers lining up to drink from the tap?

For one thing, people aren't used to drinking out of the sink at a public restroom. "I guess it depends on the facility," Pittman said with a laugh. "I definitely wouldn't put my mouth on the faucet. I'd probably hold a cup under it. But I think I'd run the water for a minute or two first."

Although free water was provided at Woodstock '99, reaching spigots often required long walks in blistering heat. More often than not, the spigots were stationed next to rows of stinking portable toilets and on ground awash in mud.

Price said that the Central Florida Fairgrounds has eight water fountains, though they were near the bathrooms, apart from the field where the concert was held. To a concertgoer, it wasn't clear where the drinking fountains were.

Running spigots on the concert field were available to hot attendees, but mostly, people tried to avoid the mud they created.

Additionally, the facility provided a garden hose that people used to spray themselves down. But Pittman said people were wise not to drink from the hose, which can harbor bacteria.

At the hottest part of the day, the Orlando Fire Department deployed a "cool zone," a fan that sprays a mist of water. Mist tents, places where people can get sprayed off, are increasingly found at large outdoor events, where there is usually little shade.

But for many concertgoers, heat exhaustion came on too quickly for them to find water, Chief Hackett said.

"One of our medics noticed a girl who was lying on the ground near the first aid tent," Hackett said. "She hadn't moved in hours. When he went up to her and asked her what was wrong, she said she wasn't feeling well; obvious signs of heat exhaustion. We gave her water and she eventually walked out of there."

The best way to prevent heat exhaustion is by drinking water continuously while out in the heat. Profuse sweating indicates that water needs to be replaced. Headaches and weakness are more advanced signs, along with redness in the face and nausea. At concerts, Hackett says, people who notice symptoms should leave the crowd, find a shady spot, rest and drink water.

And figure out where the water is before a problem arises.

Hundley says that for the most part, concert organizers will be sympathetic.

"Look, if you don't have any money and you're having heat problems, we're not going to let you suffer," he said. "There is no reason for someone to come to a show and not be able to find water."