Plastic funnels and tubing have become hot sellers at Strosniders Hardware store in Potomac, thanks to the teenagers who are buying the items every weekend.
But store employees, who fear the teens are using the items to get drunk, say that's not the kind of business they want.
"Every weekend, they come in here like clockwork," said Linda Thompson, a Strosniders employee for 16 years. "Sometimes as young as 14."
She and others who work at the store in the Potomac Plaza shopping center on River Road are concerned about teenagers using the materials to make beer bongs -- devices used to quickly consume alcohol by pouring beer into the funnel and drinking it as it rushes through the tube.
She said two to three teenagers come in each weekend, usually on Fridays after school between 3 and 5 p.m., or sometimes later in the evening and pick up a 64-ounce plastic funnel and about three feet of plastic tubing. Thompson started noticing a trend in the purchasing of the items about two years ago, she said.
The teens say they are using the items for science projects, according to Thompson, "but we know they're not," she said.
And for the past two years, Montgomery County Police officers in the Alcohol Enforcement Unit have found evidence that those tubes and funnels are being used for something other than schoolwork, as well.
Sgt. Bill Whalen, supervisor of the county police alcohol initiatives section, which falls under the enforcement unit's purview, said police find beer bongs at about one-third of the underage drinking parties that officers break up.
"Two weeks ago I was at a party in Potomac off of River Road and found a homemade beer bong," he said. "It's a quick way to get the alcohol in. In the last two years there seems to be more."
Whalen said the five-man Alcohol Enforcement Unit responds to and reports about three underage drinking parties each weekend countywide.
"We've also been writing a whole bunch of alcohol citations," he said.
In January, 94 citations were written for underage possession of alcohol throughout the county, he said. Sixty of those citations were written at parties, he said.
But police can't write citations for beer bong possession.
"There's nothing illegal about the things they're buying," Whalen said.
And that is what makes Thompson and her colleagues' job so difficult.
"Our hands are tied," she said.
Thompson said that she and her co-workers try sometimes to give advice to their young customers, telling them not to drink and drive or warning them that drinking too much can be fatal. Other times they simply walk away from the cash register and refuse to wait on them.
"I try to get through to them," said Thompson, a Gaithersburg resident who has worked at the Potomac store for 12 years, but has been with the company longer. "I don't think the kids realize how dangerous this is. I've even said to the kids, 'Do you know that this could kill you?' One kid said to me, 'Yeah like you care.' I told him I do care. I wouldn't say anything if I didn't."
More teenagers come in for the supplies during school breaks, weekends and even recently when schools were closed three consecutive days because of snow.
"I say to them, 'Please be careful and stay where you're at,'" she said. "I don't want to read about them in the newspaper the next day."
Some parents are apparently unaware of the situation, she said. One boy charged a funnel and tubing on his parent's credit card, she said.
"It's messing them up big time," she said. "I know that kids are going to be kids and they're going to experiment and they're going to drink, but like this, you do it much quicker and get more intoxicated."
Meg Baker, program coordinator for Drawing the Line on Under 21 Alcohol Use, a multi-agency partnership against teenage drinking, said many parents are likely unaware that items like funnels and tubes can be used for drinking apparatus.
"When we do go out and talk to parents, we do bring things like [beer bongs] to show how ordinary things can be used for teenage drinking," she said.
For parents, it can be difficult to stay on top of children when it comes to drinking.
"I think a lot of parents aren't aware," said Laura Siegel, PTSA vice president for Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. "A lot kids don't realize it, too. They're drinking too much, too fast. It can be come a dangerous situation."
The Churchill PTSA has had several meetings to educate parents about dealing with teenage drinking, she said. In addition, articles have been published in the PTSA bulletin about setting rules for safe driving.
But even when parents do talk to their children, they don't always listen, Siegel said.
"As a parent it's very frustrating," she said. "You sound like a broken record and so I think that's why some parents just stop the argument. But I guess we have to just keep sounding like a broken record. It's an uphill battle."
Whalen said police will step up efforts to monitor hardware stores for suspicious purchases by teens.
"We're going to start utilizing Operation Extra Eyes," a program where citizens volunteer to watch the stores and report activities to police, he said.
Although teens can't be issued a citation simply for having beer bongs or the pieces to make them, police can be alerted that teenage drinking may occur.
"We'll be more aware of that particular neighborhood," Whalen said.
Baker said there are several continuing efforts in the county aimed at convincing high school students to not drink, and especially not to drink and drive. And many high schools have stepped up efforts to host programs aimed to curb drinking.
"We're trying to promote the positive," Baker said. "The norm is that most teens don't drink."
At Strosniders, employees hope that parents will take notice.
"We don't want to get into any legal issues. We just want to make the parents aware of what's going on," said store manager Andy Poteat. "You see on TV about teenagers getting killed. It makes me sick when I see these young people coming in and not really understanding the consequences of what they're doing."