ST. LOUIS — Angela Stamps will stop drinking water from her faucet, shower less, and stop taking the baths she once found relaxing. She doesn’t cook with tap water and sometimes skips rinsing her products.
Though the amount of lead in Flint, Michigan’s tap water has been well below a key state threshold for several years, she can’t stop worrying since enduring the trauma of the city’s lead crisis.
“I just don’t trust it,” she said.
As the Biden administration seeks to spend billions of dollars to address inequalities in water quality and access to water, officials must seek to overcome the public’s lingering distrust of tap water. Experts say they will be particularly difficult to overcome in black and Hispanic communities, where suspicions are solidifying due to previous instances of official misdirection and high-profile lead crises in cities with large black populations, including Flint and Newark, New Jersey can .
“Problems in one place undermine trust in other places,” said David Switzer, a water quality and public policy researcher at the University of Missouri.
The problem will hit many cities and towns as the Biden administration pushes to replace millions of lead supply lines across the US that can leach lead into drinking water. Additionally, tightened testing standards could uncover higher levels of lead and alert more communities of issues.
Already 20% of adults nationwide say they don’t drink tap water — filtered or not — up from 14% before the Flint crisis, according to a study using federal survey data. The numbers among black adults are higher, with 35% saying they avoid drinking from the tap, up from 25% before Flint. Among Hispanic adults, the number increased from 27% to 38%.
This distrust can lead to unnecessary spending on bottled water or make adults more likely to turn to sugary beverages, which can increase the risk of health problems like diabetes and tooth decay, said Asher Rosinger, a Pennsylvania State University researcher studying access to water .
Add to that the constant stress on parents who fear tap water could poison their children, he said.
Although the vast majority of the country’s water systems report meeting federal sanitation standards, problems such as elevated lead levels and health injuries are more common in lower-income areas that are predominantly black or Hispanic, Switzer said.
Broken plumbing that turns the water brown or produces an odd taste can also keep people away from the faucet. Immigrants from countries with unsafe water could transfer that distrust to water that may be safer in the U.S. and pass that unease on to their children, said Silvia R. González, who works on environmental justice and water issues at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative .
“When I think about my family, my father doesn’t drink tap water, so my brother doesn’t drink tap water,” said Gonzalez, whose father immigrated to the United States from Mexico.
And when residents feel their local government is indifferent to their needs — a problem particularly prevalent in black and brown communities — it can encourage distrust of drinking water, experts say.
“There’s a legacy of mistrust and a healthy sense of paranoia that has kept us alive for centuries,” said Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who has researched and campaigned for environmental justice for decades.
Philadelphia, which is 44% black, is one of the few places to have launched a public campaign to help residents save money and reduce plastic pollution by increasing trust in tap water. Murals on buildings and songs advertise the city’s drinking water.
Although there was no lead scandal, surveys in cities show that residents avoid the faucet for health reasons and because of the taste. Among Black residents in 2021, more than 60% said they primarily drank bottled water, compared to 42% of Philadelphia residents overall.
Monika Davis, who is black, switched from bottled water to tap water when she applied to become one of about a dozen residents recruited by the city as ambassadors in 2019 to appear at events and chat with her neighbors about safety and to talk about the benefits of tap water.
She remembers her family boiling water as a precaution when she was growing up. Touring the water treatment plant and learning about the city’s water quality helped reassure them of its safety, she said.
The percentage of residents who rely on bottled water fell after the campaign but rose again last year.
“It takes a lot to change a habit,” Davis said.
For some, the Flint crisis fueled suspicions that officials are indifferent to black and brown communities. Michigan officials had switched the city’s water supply to save money and initially downplayed the problem before the facts came out and it became a major scandal.
“People rightly felt betrayed,” said Mark Edwards, water quality specialist at Virginia Tech.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no amount of lead is considered safe for children. But many water systems have some head start and need to take significant action when levels reach a state threshold. Edwards said the CDC guideline could create unnecessary fear and blur the distinction between low levels and levels of genuine concern. Flint’s stats are low, but not zero.
Stamps cites the federal lead-free health goal to explain her skepticism and says no one should be in the water.
Because of this, experts say that replacing lead pipes will not be enough and that public relations will be crucial.
In Flint, Michigan, officials say lead levels have been lower for years and the state now has the strongest lead water protection in the country. They say they have worked to replace lead plumbing, improve infrastructure and be transparent by releasing test data, but they recognize that rebuilding trust takes time and ongoing outreach.
A community laboratory not affiliated with the government also tests water for free.
“Residents are still at a point where they don’t trust the government,” said Candice Mushatt, director of the Flint Community Lab, adding that residents appreciate the lab’s independence — it inspires trust.
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