Flint's Tragedy and the Distrust of Tap Water

The slow moving tragedy that the city of Flint, MI has experienced in the last year, and which has exploded in the media only recently, provides many opportunities for criticizing political and technical authorities, who have massively failed their constituents and customers.

The priority in this situation should be the unconditional support for the people of Flint, and particularly their children, both by providing safe water and remedial care and other forms of aid to fight the consequences of the continued ingestion of water with heavy concentrations of lead.

Yet, beyond the immediate human tragedy, there is a long-term issue that the explosion of the Flint case in the media is bringing to the fore. As people read and watch more stories about Flint, as well-intentioned individuals and families send bottled water to the city to help poor families have access to unpolluted water, we find ourselves reinforcing a trend that is extremely dangerous.

The rise in the amount of bottled water sold in the United States in the last 15 years has been remarkable. The bottled water industry gleefully reports that the increase in per capita consumption between 2003 and 2013 was almost 50% (from 21.6 to 32 gallons per capita). Yet, as experts and journalists have often pointed out, most bottled water sold in the world is nothing more than filtered tap water, which means that it does not provide any added benefits. The supposed health advantages from bottled water are, mostly, the product of sleek marketing.

At the same time, the cost of bottled water is 300 times more expensive than the cost of tap water, with some estimates raising the figure to 2000 times more expensive. And bottled water has extremely high environmental costs, in large part because of the use of plastic bottles and the energy spent in shipping it across long distances.

Activists have worked very hard in the last few years to promote the use of tap water, reaching milestones such as banning the sale and use of bottled water in public property in different cities of the United States, such as San Francisco; organizing campaings to promote the use of tap water; and even developing an app for mobile devices that maps the location of free water fountains.

In this context, the tragedy of Flint supposes a hard blow to the effort of activists and environmentalists. Several times a day, Americans are reminded of the possibility of unsafe tap water, which provides an incentive for the purchase of bottled water. To many people, the evidence that suggests class and racial discrimination at the heart of the events in Flint will go unnoticed, and they will instead be left with an intuitive skepticism of tap water: “what if the water in my city is also tainted and I don’t find out until much later?” It doesn’t matter either that, in the United States, regulations and controls of the quality of tap water are significantly stronger and stricter than for bottled water. The salience of the Flint debacle will act as a free marketing campaign for bottled water companies, who will continue to sell $4 water bottles to unsuspecting customers.

Sometimes, a disaster is more than a disaster, because it sets in motion detrimental dynamics for the future. This is another consequence of what is happening in Flint, and it means that we should double our efforts to disseminate accurate information and prevent a growing distrust of tap water.

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