Philadelphia Promotes Tap Water Amid National Distrust

Oct 12, 2019
Originally published on October 12, 2019 5:57 pm
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Philadelphia is in the midst of a campaign to convince more of its residents to drink tap water. That water is generally considered some of the best in the country. But the city is up against an incomplete inventory of which homes have lead pipes and, among minorities, a national mistrust of municipal water. Dana Bate of member station WHYY reports on the challenge of getting residents to trust their tap water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANA BATE, BYLINE: It's a hot afternoon, and the courtyard at Philadelphia City Hall is bumping with loud music, free water and one of the city's most recognizable mascots.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, it's the Phillie Phanatic.

BATE: The furry, green baseball mascot has come to support the Water Department's water bar, a table lined with pamphlets about the quality of Philadelphia's tap water and iced pitchers of the famous Schuylkill Punch - the tap water that comes from the nearby Schuylkill River. It's all part of an effort to rebrand the city's water and spread the word that the water is not only safe to drink but exceeds EPA safety standards. The water commissioner, Randy Hayman, is there to plug Philly tap.

RANDY HAYMAN: It's great water. Like I said, when it's hot, it's what you want.

BATE: West Philadelphian Venita Dixon stopped by to hear Hayman's pitch. Like a lot of Philadelphians, she doesn't always trust what's coming out of her faucet.

VENITA DIXON: It has, like, lead in it, different things in it. You hear about what's happening in other cities with lead being in water.

BATE: Other cities like Flint and, most recently, Newark, which is only about an hour and a half north of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Water Department says all of its water mains are lead-free, but that doesn't mean the water is risk-free. The department estimates about 20,000 homes in the city have lead service lines, and there's no official inventory of which ones those are. Asher Rosinger of the Water, Health and Nutrition Lab at Penn State says that combined with the events in Flint and Newark makes some Philadelphians nervous about tap water.

ASHER ROSINGER: Those messages of distress may also emanate and kind of reverberate throughout different populations that have similar characteristics with those that have faced that environmental injustice.

BATE: Rosinger has studied the phenomenon of bottled versus tap water nationally. He's found that black and Hispanic adults are two to three times more likely to drink bottled water than white adults. So are those with lower incomes and less education. Philadelphia's numbers follow the same pattern.

ROSINGER: It's kind of one of these paradoxes because when you're looking at bottled water versus tap water, there is the question of economics that comes up.

BATE: Philadelphia tap water costs a penny per gallon. A gallon of bottled water costs more than 200 times that. But many low-income and minority residents are willing to pay that premium because they don't trust the government.

KIERRA BARNETT: Especially minority communities here in America. We don't have the greatest history with interactions with governments.

BATE: That's Kierra Barnett of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. She says government-sponsored discrimination like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on blacks in the 1900s has tainted relationships with minority communities.

BARNETT: When people know about these things, and they hear about these things, rightfully so, they're going to start to be mistrusting of an institution that has not been looking out for their benefit all time.

BATE: Laura Copeland is a public information officer for the Philadelphia Water Department and says the department knows gaining the community's trust is going to take time.

LAURA COPELAND: We recognize that it's not going to happen overnight. But we're just going to be out there spreading the message and making sure that we let people know that their tap water is safe.

BATE: The department has delivered that message with the help of so-called water ambassadors - trusted members of the community who spread the word about the virtues of Philly tap.

LUZ CRESPO: We've got the best purified water right here.

BATE: Luz Crespo is one of those ambassadors and has held many events in North Philadelphia like this one near the Temple University train station. She says she's gotten a good response so far, but with nearby Newark's lead crisis all over the news and an incomplete inventory of lead service lines in Philly, some people still don't believe her when she says their water is safe.

CRESPO: It makes people lose confidence. You know, like, are we telling the truth or not?

BATE: The perceived answer to that question might be the difference between getting people to drink from their tap or not.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Bate in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.