Fluoride Action Network

We are Water | From plastics to pipes: Who drinks Evanston’s tap water and why do some avoid it?

Source: Evanstown Round Table | October 18th, 2021 | By" We are Water Evanston"
Location: United States, Illinois

This is part five of an eight-article series by We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.

Evanston lies on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the most valuable freshwater sources in the world. Evanston has an award-winning water quality lab, and the city’s most recent water quality reports have all shown that our water meets state and national standards.

Nevertheless, a 2020 We Are Water Evanston survey of 756 residents revealed one in five respondents were unsure about their tap water quality or believed bottled water was safer.

In this fifth article in the We are Water series, we paint a picture of what many Evanstonians think about their drinking water and explain why their perceptions matter. To do that, we’ll share results from both our larger survey and in-depth interviews we conducted with 75 residents across the city.

Of note, we learned that residents of color, on average, were about four times less likely to trust tap water in Evanston than the white residents we surveyed and interviewed. Many said their distrust in tap water was rooted in skepticism about the government’s dedication to protecting people. Rebeca Mendoza, a civic leader and Latinx resident, said, “In terms of preservation of our water sources, for me, there’s always the fear that they [the City of Evanston] would sell us out.”

(Credit: Erin McCotter/We are Water Evanston)

We also found home ownership status influenced tap water perception and usage. Non-homeowners, including renters, those living with family, and people without housing were about twice as likely to think Evanston’s tap water was less safe than bottled water – a significant discrepancy in trust. One possible explanation for this disparity is that homeowners have more control and access to information about the infrastructure connected to their water supply.

Despite trust issues, 93% of survey respondents reported drinking tap water. However, over half of those reported filtering, boiling or letting their tap water settle before drinking. At times, this was attributed to water quality concerns. Others said they drank “fridge water” or used a filtered pitcher out of habit, suggesting their preferences had less to do with trust in the water supply.

Tap water survey
(Chart by Erin McCotter/We are Water Evanston)

While only 7% of those who took our survey reported buying bottled water or five-gallon containers from the store, when we dug deeper into the data we found that the average obscured racial and socioeconomic disparities. Only about 6% of white people drank store-bought water, but 20% of people of color did. Furthermore, people without housing were about five times more likely to use bottled water than the rest of the survey pool, all of which suggests that trust in Evanston’s tap water is a pressing equity issue.

Some wary of water straight from the tap

Those who filter their tap water and those who buy water from the store often had the same reasoning for their behavior: People wanted to remove metals (such as lead) and chemicals (such as chlorine) from their water, and they also wanted to improve its taste. Another common reason for distrusting tap water was general uncertainty about its quality. One civic leader explained, “I switched to bottled because I was not sure.”

Lead pipes were one of the main sources of tap water hesitancy in Evanston. People described fears about lead contamination in schools, lead pipes connecting to their homes, and the lack of routine and equitable lead testing in the water, particularly in the historically Black Fifth Ward.

To protect against contamination from lead pipes, Evanston’s water treatment plant adds blended phosphate to the water. That’s the chemical that policymakers excluded from Flint Michigan’s water treatment budget, causing lead to leach from pipes into residents’ drinking water. Many Evanston residents either weren’t aware of blended phosphate, did not think it was a sufficient protectant or even saw it as detracting from water quality.

One resident told us they feel store-bought water is safer because, they said, it only has “naturally occurring chemicals … don’t have the chlorine, the fluoride, the stuff that protects pipes,” suggesting they did not trust the chemicals the water treatment plant added to tap water. A local business owner told us, “They have that anti-corrosion chemical, but it seems to me that the only ideal solution would be the substitution of the lead pipes, which is obviously costly. But it also feels to me that they are in a … place to do that.”

Indeed, our research suggests that while there is a need for the city to better communicate about its treatment efforts, the only long-term solution to the water distrust problem is to replace all of the city’s lead water pipes.

Lead pipe replacement
An Evanston lead service line replacement, as seen in a recent city presentation. (Source: https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showpublisheddocument/6610, Sept. 13, 2021)

In August, state legislation called the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act was signed into law; it sets a goal for complete replacement of lead service lines in Evanston by 2061. But the act allows room for a 10-year extension past this deadline, so maintaining public pressure to meet this goal remains vital.

The act also requires “the establishment of a comprehensive low-income water assistance policy and program,” but it is unclear how this will happen in practice. The city of Evanston already has a lead pipe replacement program with a cost-sharing arrangement. However, it still puts a financial burden on property owners, creating a barrier for low-income homeowners and renters.

Why do we need to increase trust in tap water?

People who don’t trust Evanston’s water and choose to buy bottled water end up paying a high cost for their lack of confidence. Bottled water is on average about 2,000 times more expensive than tap water, and in-home filters present the added cost burden of replacement filters every few months. One resident stated, “No one wants to spend money on water, right? And no one should. That shouldn’t ever be a budgeting expense.”

Another interviewee spoke about financial barriers to obtaining trusted water by explaining, “There’s something about … there’s a chemical smell or chemical aftertaste to this [tap water]. … And that’s when I began to try to avoid it. But then the burden was on me to like, say, use my food stamp card to buy bottled water.” Another resident told us that “making [tap water] safer” was their top concern because “then I don’t have to keep buying bottled water. I would really like that.”

Additionally, increasing trust in tap water and therefore reducing bottled water use has important environmental implications, such as reducing plastic pollution in our waterways. Not only is this necessary to preserve biodiversity, but Evanstonians we interviewed also told us they care about eco-conscious behaviors. For some, ethical concerns about the environment were enough to overcome tap water hesitancies. One resident who had some water quality concerns said, “I am not buying so much water. I don’t like it because of the plastic. There are times when I tell my children, ‘We have to do something for the planet, we don’t have to spend this or do the other, many things.’”

For others, environmental concerns were not sufficient to make the switch to bottled water. One striking example was an experienced environmental justice advocate we spoke to, who said, “I buy bottled water and I understand it’s so bad for the environment. I do. I mean, I’ve seen the movies or the documentaries where it’s the different parts of the world and where it’s all these plastic bottles and stuff. I get it. But I can’t afford to get sick. I have some underlying issues in health.” This sentiment recurred throughout several interviews and survey responses, suggesting to us environmental concerns won’t motivate people to drink tap water without first building trust in the city’s tap water.

Many respondents expressed hostility toward those who use bottled water. One resident said, “Bottled water? Yeah. Yeah, waste of money and introducing all this plastic into the environment that doesn’t need to be there.” Another interviewee said, “Our water is constantly tested to ensure it is safe to drink. It is ridiculous to pay a lot of money to buy water and waste a lot of plastic.”

Rebeca Mendoza has noticed this condescending tone often used toward Latinx residents. She said, “I think that we need to do a better job around educating the [Latinx] community. And do it in a welcoming way, because sometimes I feel like our community gets talked down to, and it makes them feel like, they’re ignorant, or like, ‘Oh, you don’t recycle or you know, you use plastic.’”

Our research in Evanston suggests there are complex reasons for people’s behaviors and preferences when it comes to tap versus bottled water, from trust to environmental concerns to habit. Understanding these motivations is a crucial step in designing appropriate, holistic solutions to promote consumption of tap water. Ensuring that everyone feels comfortable utilizing this life-sustaining public resource will bring us one step closer to an equitable Evanston.

In our next article, we’ll cover different information sources people rely on to learn about water issues in Evanston, and later, we’ll take a deeper dive into the environmental impacts of bottled water use. 

We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed Collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston). 

*Original article online at https://evanstonroundtable.com/2021/10/18/evanston-tap-water-lead-pipes-we-are-water-part-5/