Trusting The Tap: How Perceptions Impact Whether People Drink Tap Water

May 6, 2019

The issue of lead in drinking water isn’t limited to low income neighborhoods around Milwaukee. The housing stock and the water infrastructure in many city and suburban neighborhoods is old — and lead laterals serve modest houses and sprawling mansions alike.  

But how do people around the city decide whether to drink water straight from the tap, run it through a filter, drink bottled water, or some other option? Researchers are increasingly interested in learning how people decide whether to drink their tap water. 

Greg Pierce, the associate director of research at the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies public perceptions of tap water.

Here are three key takeaways from Pierce's research:

Socioeconomic factors impact perceptions of tap water

“Since Flint, there's been an interest both from the public and from the researcher perspective on digging deeper into questions of water quality, perception of detection of water quality that goes beyond what the federal regulations sort of lay out in the Safe Drinking Water Act,” he says.

He says education, race and ethnicity play a role in shaping people’s perceptions of tap water. More educated people tend to trust tap water - while low-income immigrants, who may have had bad experiences with water in their home country, tend to mistrust the tap.

African Americans also have lower trust in tap water. “Even in some cases where the tap water is perfectly safe,” Pierce says.

» See More Project Milwaukee: Great Lakes, Troubled Waters Reports

Tap water alternatives aren’t necessarily safer

If people aren’t drinking tap water, that means they need to find another way to hydrate. To do that, they might choose bottled water or sugary drinks. And Pierce says that’s concerning.

“The health impacts are multiple. There's sort of a lower level concern around dental health if you're drinking either bottled water or sugary beverages,” explains Pierce. “But more so the concern around diabetes and reliance on sugary beverages. Because the cost is relatively similar to bottled water, that's causing obesity and other sorts of long-term health effects.”

READ: Which Water Is Best For Health?

So, are these alternatives safer than tap water? Not so much.

“I would say there's no evidence, in most cases, that bottled water or sugary beverages are safer, even in terms of the water quality, than your average tap water,” Pierce says. “But when it comes to lead in the tap water, you do have to [substitute other drinks] in those emergency cases.”

Flint and Milwaukee have altered perceptions of tap water quality

In various polls that have been conducted since Flint, Pierce says there seems to be a higher level of both awareness and mistrust in tap water.

“That's been higher levels of mistrust, particularly in the Midwest around Flint, as well as among the African American population, given the way that decision making around addressing the crisis influence was targeted or sort of neglected, because of the majority African American population in that city,” he says.

However, he points out there isn’t enough data to characterize the long-term effects on perception.

“It's too soon to tell, I would say outside of Michigan and outside of the Midwest, how much of a long-term impact this is going to have on mistrust,” he says. “But it seems to be quite relevant.”