By David Minkow
The California Report
Eileen Navarro refuses to drink the water from her tap. “I don’t trust it,” explains the East Los Angeles mother of three. “It comes through dirty pipes, plus I don’t believe the water is any good to begin with.”
Instead, Navarro and her family drink only bottled water. “The only time I use tap water is to wash my car,” she says.
Navarro’s attitude is not unusual, especially among the state’s Hispanic community. According to a statewide study last year by the Public Policy Institute of California, 55 percent of Latinos drink bottled water, compared to 30 percent of whites. And in Southern California, which has the nation’s highest rates of bottled water consumption, a Metropolitan Water District survey found that 82 percent of Hispanics bought bottled water versus 68 percent of whites.
In response, MWD and the Central Basin Municipal Water District launched a campaign two years ago to educate Latino customers about the quality of tap water.
“They come over from Mexico or other Latin American countries that have water quality problems, so they don’t trust water coming from the tap,” explains Central Basin spokesperson Art Aguilar. “We want them to know that the water in this country is good and that they don’t have to fear it.”
He says that the monthly cost for a family drinking 60 gallons of water is 13 ½ cents for tap water, compared to $15 for water from vending machines and $48 for bottled water. “Our message was, ‘hey, you’ve got limited resources and you don’t have to spend money on bottled water.’”
The campaign included posters, a community health fair and a 30-page pamphlet: “What You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Your Tap Water.” Mothers of East LA executive director Elsa Lopez, one of several volunteers who went door-to-door distributing the pamphlets, wishes that there had been more outreach money. She encountered many people who had been told that drinking tap water would make them sick and cause their teeth to rot.
“People with no scruples are pushing folks to buy filtration systems, even though it is so expensive and unnecessary. They prey upon recent immigrants who already think that tap water is bad.”
In 1999, two water filtration companies were accused of using deceptive business practices in Southern California to charge exorbitant fees to Latino residents for water filter systems. Authorities found that after being shown misleading water tests and told that tap water contained feces and urine, caused cancer and had killed children, thousands of Latino residents had signed English-language contracts to pay thousands of dollars for water filters that only cost a few hundred dollars at home improvement stores.
Mel Suffet, professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA, says that most popular concerns about tap water are unfounded. “Tap water is as safe as bottled waterin some cases it may be a safer product.”
He explains that some bottled water is made by simply removing chlorine from tap water and then using ozonation to disinfect it. “If it doesn’t say spring water or doesn’t have information about its source, it probably means that it is reprocessed tap water,” he says.
In October, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a report, “What’s on Tap,” that evaluated the drinking water in 19 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Fresno. It concluded that while the purity of drinking water has improved over the past 15 years, contaminants in the water can be a health risk for certain populations.
“For people with compromised immune systems, it may be safer, after consulting with their doctors about the quality of their local tap water, to drink bottled water,” recommends NRDC attorney Adrianna Quintero.
But she says that before choosing to forego tap water, consumers need to know what’s in the alternatives. In addition to concerns that bottled water doesn’t differ from what is in the tap, she says, “Many folks in the Latino community are getting their water from vending machines and who knows what’s in that.”
In December, the Environmental Law Foundation sued Glacier Water Services Inc., the state’s largest vended water company, alleging that in a test one-third of the vending machines failed to meet state standards for contaminants.
Quintero says that to help consumers make informed decisions about what water to drink, two companion bills, Assembly Bill 83 and Senate Bill 50 were introduced into the California legislature in January to make bottled and vended water meet the same requirements as tap water.
“People need the ability to educate themselves,” she says. “We hope that this will help level the playing field.”
Stephen Kay, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, contends that the bill is unnecessary. He points out that bottled water is considered a food product and thus already meets stringent federal standards.
“These two bills create proscriptive standards for a product that has been regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) since 1938,” he says, explaining that public water style reporting is not feasible due to space constraints on the label and because existing provisions handle products that are out of compliance.
He adds that while his organization supports definitions that determine whether something can be called spring water, or purified water, it’s not necessary to list the specific source of the water. “It’s like identifying which orange grove your orange comes from, or where the water in your soda originated.”
Adan Ortega, Metropolitan Water District vice president of external affairs, says consumers have a right to know what they’re drinking.
“While water agencies have to list the constituents in the water, bottled water companies don’t have to. Without that information, it’s easier for predatory entrepreneurs to rip people off.”
Ortega says that in addition to translating the pamphlets into five Asian languages, MWD is concentrating its education efforts in hospitals and doctor’s offices.
“We’ve learned that if you’re going to inform consumers, you can’t educate them on commercials and billboards, you need to get them when they are focused on health issues.”
Eileen Navarro says that it will take a lot of convincing for her to drink tap water, but she would be willing to listen to what her family doctor has to say.
(Note: You can participate in a statewide live radio discussion of Drinking Water issues from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, to be broadcast locally on KPBS, 89.5 on your FM dial.)