Filthy Drinking Water Is Driving Up Soda Consumption—and Childhood Obesity—in Rural Towns

Even the public perception of unsafe tap water can have a negative impact on public health.

(Photo: Zia Soleil/Getty Images)

Jan 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

For families with kids traveling abroad—a beach vacation to Mexico, a safari in East Africa—the specter of bad drinking water can turn into a soda bonanza for kids living in what might otherwise be soft drink–free homes. Thanks to the global domination of companies such as Coca-Cola, a cold Coke is nearly always close at hand, even when bottled water is not. Back at home, however, H20 is not a concern—because we have clean drinking water in the United States. Right?

For families who keep their kids off of soda, and who can afford a leisurely week’s vacation in Cancun, that is likely the case. But in poor immigrant communities such as the farming towns in California’s Central Valley, it’s not a foregone conclusion that what comes out of the tap is safe to drink—and the perception, whether correct or not, is having an affect on public health.

That’s the gist of a new policy brief from the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, based on interviews conducted with 27 mothers living in two largely Latino rural towns. Based on these personal accounts, the researchers write that consumption of soda is higher—potentially leading to increased rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes—in areas where there are health concerns over drinking water.

The subjects reported that more than a third of children ages three to eight years old drank soda more than two or three times a week.

“These children may drink SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] so frequently in part because of a real or perceived lack of safe drinking water,” the authors write. The obesity rate for children three to eight in the same households was 28 percent; nationally, 18 percent of kids between the ages of six and 11 were obese in 2012.

There are good reasons to avoid drinking tap water in these Central Valley communities: With farmland surrounding most every town, there’s ag runoff to consider, and testing has shown that many of the municipal water sources contain worrisome levels of arsenic. All of the 13 water systems that serve the communities—two of which are state-regulated, with the remaining ones comprised of smaller municipal or private utilities—have violated monitoring regulations in the last dozen years. Two have been charged with violations indicating that the water was not properly tested for contaminants.

The brief notes that chronic, low-level arsenic exposure has been linked with the development of type 2 diabetes.

Without a reliable, safe source for drinking water—one that both meets contaminant standards and alleviates public perceptions of being unclean—poor families are either stuck with spending more of their limited resources on bottled water or resorting to soda and other unhealthy beverages.

It can’t be understated how deep these concerns over the water supply can run in the Central Valley. Ivan Garcia, who helped the UC Davis researchers collect and enter data for the study, told Citylab, “There is a major food processing plant whose waste some residents say contaminates our water. Whether or not this is true, I’d rather be safe than sorry.”