This is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. In August, we focus on Water Quality. As the current American Journal of Public Health shows, access to and intake of clean water in the US is a health equity issue. The increasing temperatures and extreme weather events of climate change only make the water issues we face now more urgent.

The following AJPH editorial gives an overview of the latest research and has been adapted for Public Health Newswire. Here, Anisha I. Patel, MD, MSPH, MSHS with the Department of Pediatrics, and Laura A. Schmidt, PhD with the Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine—both at the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California, San Francisco—offer commentary on the research

C1 PAGE.inddThe tragedy in Flint, Michigan, riveted the public health community to the problem of water access, highlighting its pernicious influence on low-income, minority families. In this issue of AJPH, Carolyn J. Brooks, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and her co-authors put numbers on the scope of our nation’s water access problem in “Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Disparities in Hydration Status Among US Adults and the Role of Tap Water and Other Beverage Intake.”

In this report, the researchers note that the problem extends beyond Flint. They found that nearly one third of US adults were inadequately hydrated, with African Americans, Hispanics and individuals at lower incomes at significantly higher risk for inadequate hydration than Whites and those with higher incomes.

In the United States, nearly one in two adults and one in four children do not drink tap water on a given day, with even more dismal statistics among minority and low-income populations. Plain water contributes to only one third of daily fluid intake, and intake is lower among the poor and minorities. When low-income minority populations do choose plain water, they are more likely to drink bottled water, a product that places an unequal cost burden on families.

We are only beginning to understand the inequities in water access and to embark on strategies to mitigate it. Given the scope of the problem documented by Brooks et al., we need to move toward evidence-based solutions on a national basis. We describe efforts around the country to address inequities in water access and what is currently known about their effectiveness.

Municipal water safety and public trust

Minority and low-income populations are more likely to live in rural areas with water contaminants and in older housing prone to lead contamination. Even when tap water is safe, many fear contamination and do not drink tap water because of numerous factors.

Reports relaying the results of municipal water testing are typically written in technical language that is beyond the public’s literacy level. Distrust in tap water is heightened among immigrants from countries where tap water is unsafe to drink. Even if safe, water that tastes bad, is discolored or dispensed from an old, dirty tap may trigger distrust. In many communities, it may be easier to purchase bottled water than to find a clean, functioning drinking fountain.

Tap water suppliers are leading the charge to clean up municipal water and promote their products. Approaches include education through community campaigns, local tap water tasting events and reusable water bottle distribution. Louisville Water, which provides drinking water to Louisville, Kentucky, and surrounding areas, has trademarked its tap water—“Louisville pure tap”—to promote a more appealing, safe image (Figure 1). New York City promotes its award-winning water through billboards and portable tap fountains at city events.

For many low-income communities, concerns about water safety are all-too realistic. In some, funders and community organizations have innovated short-term strategies until more sustainable

FIGURE 1— Efforts to Promote Safe, Appealing Water in Schools and Community Settings Note. Part a: Louisville pure tap Fill & Chill coolers are available with biocompostable cups for local events. Part b: an element of the Agua4All program, weather-resistant metal signs featuring “Wally the Water Droplet” are posted next to filtered reusable water bottle filling stations to signify safe drinking water in California communities where tap water is not potable. Part c: a water station with reusable water bottle filling capability in an elementary school cafeteria. A promotional poster and small cups also help to encourage water consumption among students. Part d: one of 100 reusable water bottle filling stations that are being installed in parks and public spaces by the City of San Francisco, California.

FIGURE 1— Efforts to Promote Safe, Appealing Water in Schools and Community Settings
Part a: Louisville pure tap Fill & Chill coolers are available with biocompostable cups for local events. Part b: an element of the Agua4All program, weather-resistant metal signs featuring “Wally the Water Droplet” are posted next to filtered reusable water bottle filling stations to signify safe drinking water in California communities where tap water is not potable. Part c: a water station with reusable water bottle filling capability in an elementary school cafeteria. A promotional poster and small cups also help to encourage water consumption among students. Part d: one of 100 reusable water bottle filling stations that are being installed in parks and public spaces by the City of San Francisco, California.

solutions for cleaning up the water are available. California-based Agua4All installs filtered water bottle filling stations in libraries, schools and parks where potable drinking water is otherwise not readily available. To promote public trust, Agua4All posts a recognizable water droplet icon on stations to signify their safety (Figure 1). In Boston, Massachusetts, and Baltimore, Maryland, some public schools are providing bottled water until lead in water is remediated.

Although isolated efforts around the country to address these problems are a step in the right direction, scaled-up, sustainable strategies that promote clean water and instill public confidence are needed.

Water in schools and community settings

Efforts to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs; sodas, sports drinks and other beverages with added sugar) have historically focused on restricting SSB access in schools and other community settings. In 2010, the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requirement that water be provided with school meals incentivized schools to promote access to healthy beverage alternatives, such as fresh drinking water.

Even so, upward of 50 percent of US schools still do not provide free water in school cafeterias. Many that do provide a single fountain for hundreds of students. In studies in which we directly observed students in schools, rates of water fountain use ranged from 2 to 11 percent. These low rates stem not only from concerns about tap water safety, but also from the lack of appeal of fountains that are older, in disrepair, that dispense warm water, have minimal flow and are obstructed by cafeteria mops or cleaning equipment.

Recognizing the limitations of traditional drinking fountains, schools are increasingly providing water through stations with bottle filling capability or via dispensers with cups that allow students to drink more than a few sips of water (Figure 1). Evaluations of such efforts suggest that offering more appealing water can increase students’ consumption of water, decrease their intake of SSBs, and help them maintain a healthier weight. Although similar efforts in nonschool settings are still in their infancy, evaluations show their promise in modifying beverage intake patterns. The City of San Francisco, California, is installing 100 water stations in public locations, such as parks, with many targeting the city’s low-income communities (Figure 1).

Sugary drink taxes: carrot and stick

Taxing SSBs has emerged as an evidence-based approach to curb consumption of sugary drinks and promote cardiometabolic health. Eight US localities have SSB tax policies and another six are actively debating such measures. Opponents of SSB taxes argue that such levies are regressive, causing undue financial burden for lower-income populations.

If taxes were coupled with programs that provide safe, appealing tap water sources as a free substitute for SSBs, tap water could serve as a “carrot” to complement the “stick” of SSB taxation. By devoting a portion of the tax revenue to increasing access to free, safe and appealing tap water in low-income communities, governments could not only mitigate any regressive effects of SSB taxation, but also relieve the cost burden of purchasing bottled water as a substitute for SSBs.

Pairing SSB taxation with improved water access has been proposed but, as yet, not fully implemented. A popular proposal in Mexico that has yet to be finalized would use revenue from that country’s SSB tax to fund purified water fountains in schools. Public health advocates in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Berkeley, California, have also called for city SSB taxes to be earmarked for water access improvements. As more and more governments consider SSB taxation, the promotion of free, safe, appealing tap water access in low-income communities remains a promising, though still novel, approach to narrowing the gap in SSB-related health disparities and optimizing public health.

Prioritizing water access inequity solutions

The analysis by Brooks et al. demonstrates that the problem of water access and its associated socioeconomic inequities is national in scope. Isolated community efforts across the nation show some promising solutions, but there is much to be done. Efforts to test municipal water and clean up contaminants are not enough. The early experience of programs, primarily in schools, shows that water supply clean-up efforts must be coupled with ready access to appealing water sources and promotional campaigns to successfully increase water intake, reduce SSB consumption and stabilize weight gain.

A promising—but so far, untried—strategy would be to earmark a portion of SSB tax revenues for programs that promote the availability of appealing, free sources of tap water in low-income communities. Such programs would address criticisms about the regressive nature of SSB taxes, while promoting a freely available, healthy substitute for SSBs in our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

Join the Environmental Health Coalition Twitter Chat, “What’s in Your Water: The State of Water and Our Health,” on Aug. 30 from 1-2 pm EDT to weigh in on the water issues we face and the solutions that work. This is part of the advocacy efforts of APHA and the coalition to protect public health and the environment. Follow @PublicHealth to learn more about the “What’s in Your Water: The State of Water and Our Health” Twitter Chat! Use #SafeWater in your tweets, so users can easily search for what you and others are saying during the event. RSVP here.