Geohealth Research Spotlight

What Do People Drink When They Think Their Tap Water Isn’t Safe?

An analysis of nationwide housing data shows that minority households disproportionately bear the multibillion-dollar economic burden that comes from believing their water is unsafe.

Source: Water Resources Research


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Despite extensive evidence indicating that bottled water in the United States is generally no better or safer than what’s available from the faucet, many households still regularly purchase it. Although previous research has suggested that some people do so because they believe their tap water is unsafe, few studies have focused on Americans’ perceptions of drinking water on a nationwide basis or have examined these households’ choices of alternative sources of water for drinking and cooking.

To help bridge this gap, Javidi and Pierce present an analysis of publicly available data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Housing Survey, which collected socioeconomic, ethnic, and housing information from people occupying more than 94,000 dwellings nationwide. All respondents were asked whether they believed their tap water was safe, and a subset of those answering no was also asked to identify their primary source of drinking water.

To assess which variables most closely affected the respondents’ perceptions of water safety and their choice of alternative sources, the researchers used a two-stage statistical regression analysis. The results indicate that minority households are much more likely to believe their tap water is not safe, and they also reveal statistically significant differences between different ethnic groups. For example, although the team found the perception of unsafe tap water was twice as common in Hispanic households (16.4%) compared with African American households (8.48%) and more than 3 times as frequent when compared with that of non-Hispanic whites (5.07%), African American households were much more likely to buy bottled water as a substitute.

The team estimates the annual expenditures for buying bottled water to replace what is perceived to be unsafe tap water total at least $5.65 billion per year in the United States. The results clearly illustrate the substantial economic cost of avoiding tap water, and because this burden is disproportionately borne by minority groups, these findings highlight issues of social inequity and emphasize the need for targeted policy and education interventions. (Water Resources Research, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017WR022186, 2018)

—Terri Cook, Freelance Writer

Citation: Cook, T. (2019), What do people drink when they think their tap water isn’t safe?, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO117371. Published on 06 March 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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