Are You A Tap Water Avoider?
A New Study Links Food & Water Insecurity, Plus CBS Covers The PFAS Crisis
I’m no stranger to the many reasons Americans (and people throughout the world) don’t trust the water coming out of their taps.
From the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the thousands of cities where lead poisoning is worse than Flint to the PFAS crisis and other toxic pollution issues, many people do not trust tap water and with good reason.
An estimated 61 million Americans either don’t have access to or don’t trust their tap water, and that’s a huge problem.
But new research from Penn State and Northwestern University shows for the first time that avoiding tap water is associated with a 20 to 30 percent increased likelihood of also experiencing food insecurity in the U.S.
Food insecurity is defined as the inability to reliably acquire the food one needs due to limited resources. More than 13 million households, or more 35 million Americans experienced food insecurity at some point during 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Using data from more than 31,000 adults who participated in the nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers ran multiple analyses to examine the relationship between tap water avoidance and food insecurity.
Those experiencing water insecurity, or the lack of reliable access to a sufficient amount of safe drinking water, were more likely to experience food insecurity, as well.
It’s not surprising, but important to understand how these two problems are connected.
“In the United States, policy makers and the general public often assume that people in our nation have plenty of water to drink, but over the last eight to 10 years, it has become increasingly clear that is not the case,” said Asher Rosinger, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and anthropology at Penn State and lead researcher on this project in a statement.
“Crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, have shown that some people’s water is not safe,” he continues. “Meanwhile, news coverage of the Flint crisis led to increased awareness and surveillance of water problems in other communities as well as an increase in tap water avoidance for people who may have safe tap water.”
These two issues speak to systemic environmental racism impacting people’s most basic needs—food and water.
Communities of color have long experienced environmental injustice across the U.S. Black, Hispanic and Native American residents are more likely to live in environmentally disadvantaged neighborhoods, with exposure to water that violates quality standards, Asher wrote in a 2021 article.
People need to be able to trust their drinking water, but the truth is that low-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of our toxic load.
A study published in Environmental Research Letters found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.”
When tap water is available and trusted it provides a readily available, zero-sugar, and cheap beverage.
Prior research has shown that people who avoid tap water are more likely to drink sugary beverages, and that those people spend more on beverages than others. Tap water is much cheaper than bottled water, so drinking bottled water can divert funds that would otherwise be used to purchase food.
This diversion of funds impacts lower-income households and households of color more than other Americans.
“If people are avoiding tap water, they often buy bottled water at an exponentially greater cost, and that takes away money they could spend on nutritious foods in their households,” he said.
Additionally, tap water is often critical to both meal prep and clean up. If people cannot boil, wash, or steam foods because they mistrust or lack access to tap water, preparing even a simple meal can be nearly impossible.
“It all comes down to trust, and trust is often complicated,” Rosinger explained on why people avoid tap water. “The smell and taste of the water, any previous negative experiences with tap water, and the narrative about tap water in a person’s culture: All of these can influence whether people drink their tap water.”
Solutions to these issues take time, and the first step is often admitting the problem.
Water municipalities need to work with state and federal regulators to ensure they are providing clean, drinking water while also working to rebuild trust with their customers. This work begins by listening to communities and helping educate the public on how they are making improvements.
The U.S. has underinvested in water infrastructure for far too long. I’m hopeful funds made available in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last year will start making their way to communities hit the hardest by these issues.
I’m always inspired by people working locally to help solve what can feel like insurmountable water problems.
I just want to give a shout out to Water Drop Los Angeles.
Water Drop LA is a 100% volunteer-run community organization whose mission is to provide clean water and other necessities to communities facing water inaccessibility.
By distributing 2,000+ gallons of water to Skid Row each week and by providing water to our partner organizations across Southern California, Water Drop aims to support existing organizers and to meet the immediate needs of the community.
Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, and Water Drop believes that legislative advocacy must be accompanied by a swift response to critical necessities.
CBS Finally Covers The PFAS Crisis
Did you catch this segment about PFAS on CBS Sunday morning last week? Lee Cowan talked with families, farmers, and health advocates fighting for clean, safe water.
The segment featured Emily Donovan of Clean Cape Fear, a North Carolina-based grassroots community action group working to restore and protect air, soil, water, and the food supply from PFAS contamination. The group formed in June 2017 after learning Chemours, formerly DuPont, dumped large quantities of PFAS into the Cape Fear River—their primary source for drinking water.
Sending out hugs, fist bumps, and lots of love and admiration to everyone working hard on these issues. Want to add your support? Give a shout out in the comments below.