Inequities at the Tap

Water Contamination and Distrust

Colorful illustration of glasses of water containing faces
Illustration: Eric Nyquist

Historically disadvantaged and underserved communities in the U.S. are more likely to suffer from poor water infrastructure and higher rates of distrust in their drinking-water provider than are neighboring, more resourced localities. 

The quality of a household's tap water can be influenced by a number of different factors at multiple points along the treatment and delivery path. Though drinking-water providers are legally responsible for meeting the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations at water treatment facilities, that does not always guarantee that the water coming out of a family's tap will be suitable and appropriate for household uses.

Encountering discolored, foul-tasting, or odorous tap water is an unpleasant experience. It can erode residents’ trust in water quality even if the water is technically safe for consumption. Tap water mistrust can drive people to purchase expensive bottled water, drink less water than recommended, or replace water with sugar-sweetened beverages, all of which can negatively impact the mental, physical, and financial health of a household.

In this project focused on communities in East Palo Alto, California, and Detroit, Michigan, we're working with households to complete sub-weekly surveys measuring perception of tap water quality. Our research team includes engineers from Stanford University, urban planners from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, and community advocates from Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto and We the People of Detroit. We aim to identify patterns of distrust, evaluate how people are adapting to observations of their water, and determine potential causes of poor water quality.

The results of this project will contribute to a deeper understanding of tap distrust and drinking-water contamination pathways and equip our partner communities with more data to advocate for reform and action at the local and state level. 

Ariana Hernandez
Ariana Hernandez

UCLA Project Manager , Osman Lab

Image of female with blonde hair wearing a black and white top
Skyler Kriese

Administrative & Research Assistant , We the People of Detroit

Khalid Osman
Khalid K. Osman

Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering , Osman Lab