Last October we wrote about the myth of bottled water purity relative to highly regulated municipal tap water. While American consumers are increasingly choosing bottled water over tap, scientific studies and regulatory paradigms indicate that bottled water is often no more “pure” than tap water. Indeed, while nearly half of bottled water simply originates from municipal sources, American consumers – particularly lower income and minority populations – are increasingly willing to pay 300x (or more) for a “premium” water product.
The nature of these bottled water costs - and their relative distribution across the U.S. population – are troubling in that they imply that perception of drinking water quality could be contributing to growing economic polarization. Heightened demand for bottled water increases the financial burden on lower-income communities, and is indicative of key differences in water perception across diverse populations.
Importantly, consumption of bottled water varies significantly across ethnic boundaries, with Hispanic and African American populations consuming more bottled water than non-Hispanic Caucasian Americans.[i] Evidence suggests that higher consumption of bottled water among minority populations may be driven by differences in water quality perception, which may be correlated with communication gaps between water utilities and renters.[ii] Whatever the cause, it is clear that differences in bottled water consumption across demographic groups are leading to divergent financial outcomes. For example, a back of the envelope calculation – based on estimated bottle and tap water consumption among Mexican-American and non-Hispanic White American families – suggests that the average Mexican-American family spends over $500 more per year on drinking water than the average White family.[iii]
A 2011 study by Gorelick, et al. found that Whites reported spending a median of 0.4% of median household income on bottled water, while African Americans and Latinos reported spending an average of 1% of median household income on water.[iv] Overall, 6% of Whites, 12% of African Americans, and 14% of Latinos reported that they had to give up other things in order to purchase bottled water. Gorelick, et al. provide valuable analysis of these findings, stating that:
“The disproportionate use of bottled water by poor and minority families may contribute to health disparities. Despite these perceptions about the safety and health effects of bottled water, there is little if any objective evidence that in most circumstances there is any actual health benefit of bottled water over tap in the United States. Indeed, several studies have suggested increased rates of contamination of bottled water and illness. Specifically, with regards to children, concerns have been raised about the use of unfloridated bottled water and the effect on oral health. For poor families, the use of bottled water may lead to less availability of resources for other health needs, as suggested in our study by the rather striking levels of expenditure on water relative to household income (similar to other studies) and the greater self-reported likelihood among minority respondents of having to give up other things to be able to pay for water.”
As bottled water consumption continues to rise across the United States, it is important to consider how market demand across different demographic groups reflect disparities in water quality perception.
If we are to improve economic and health outcomes for disadvantaged communities, it is incumbent on the water utility industry to better communicate the benefits of municipal water quality and discourage the costly and environmentally unsustainable habit of bottled water consumption. Better customer engagement and education is at the crux of this challenge. We all should, and can, do better.
[i] See Onufrak, Stephen J., et al. "The relationship of perceptions of tap water safety with intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and plain water among US adults."Public Health Nutrition 17.01 (2014): 179-185; Onufrak, Stephen J., et al. "Perceptions of Tap Water and School Water Fountains and Association With Intake of Plain Water and Sugar‐Sweetened Beverages." Journal of School Health 84.3 (2014): 195-204; Hobson, Wendy L., et al. "Bottled, filtered, and tap water use in Latino and non-Latino children." Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 161.5 (2007): 457-461; and Huerta-Saenz, Lina, et al. "Tap or bottled water: drinking preferences among urban minority children and adolescents." Journal of Community Health 37.1 (2012): 54-58.
[ii] Tatham, Elaine L., Chris Tatham, and Jane Mobley. Customer Attitudes, Behavior, and the Impact of Communications Efforts. Vol. 1. American Water Works Association, 2004.
[iii] Applying the “average” Mexican-American bottled water consumption values to an individual consumer[iii] - assuming that the consumer purchases all of their bottled water in bulk [iii] and that the cost of tap water is negligible, the financial burden of drinking water is $1,320 per year for a family of four. In contrast, the “average” White American family of four spends $800 per year on bottled water, suggesting that the average Mexican-American family spends over $500 more per year on water than the average White-American family.
[iv] Gorelick MH, Gould L, Nimmer M, et al. Perceptions About Water and Increased Use of Bottled Water in Minority Children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011;165(10):928-932. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.83.