Ask Rhasheed Hamilton if he drinks Philadelphia’s tap water, and he’ll look at you like you asked if he drinks motor oil.
“That’s like sliding down a giant razor blade and jumping in an alcoholic lake,” the North Philadelphia resident said. “You never know what’s going to happen with that.”
Instead, like some 40 percent of Philadelphians, Hamilton drinks bottled water. He loves Fiji and Poland Spring, though he isn’t too particular about the brand.
“Pretty much any one that’s bottled,” he said. “Just as long as it’s not out of the spigot.”
Natalie Walker of North Philadelphia feels the same way and avoids drinking water out of the tap or giving that water to her teenage daughter.
“I don’t think that the water’s clean enough,” Walker said. “And I think we can all taste that it’s not really clean enough.”
Their distrust of the city’s water is shared by many who prefer bottled water at home. That distrust is particularly pronounced among low-income minority and female residents, who are drinking bottled water at higher rates than their counterparts.
“It’s just a dynamic of a lack of investment inside those communities,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president for environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Fund.
“These communities have been disproportionately impacted in lots of different ways over the years,” he said, “and if you want to rebuild that trust, then that means that you’re going to have to invest in that space.”
That’s what a new campaign called Drink Philly Tap is hoping to do. Led by a coalition of four groups, including ImpactED at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Water Department, PennEnvironment, and the Water Center at Penn, the campaign launches later this month and wants to deliver the message that Philly’s water is safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than bottled water.
“What we’re trying to do is empower residents in Philadelphia with information and knowledge to choose drinking tap water over bottled water,” said ImpactED’s Nina Hoe Gallagher, who is leading the coalition.
To do that, the coalition is tapping into local communities — no pun intended — and enlisting 25 “water ambassadors” who come from those communities and are passionate about helping them.
“By training community leaders to talk to their constituents, that is what we’re doing here to build trust,” said Hailey Stern, a planner for the Philadelphia Water Department, “and having it come from existing voices, trusted voices already, and have them spread the message rather than it coming from the top down.”
The department ended up receiving more than 600 applications for 25 spots. It has selected those who will serve as ambassadors to their communities and will be notifying them in the coming weeks.
Ambassadors will begin training in May and will work through October, holding meetings and events with neighbors to educate them about Philadelphia’s tap water, which consistently meets and exceeds EPA standards. They will also spread information about how to get a home checked for lead by the Water Department.
The department will check any home for free, and if lead is found in the pipes, residents can apply for a five-year interest-free HELP loan to replace them. (If the Water Department is replacing a main and finds lead going into a house, it will actually replace the lines for free, from main to meter.)
The ambassadors will give reports each month on the outreach strategies they used and the number of residents who pledged to drink tap water. In November, they’ll give final reports tallying all that information, at which point they’ll receive $600 stipends.
The coalition also is reaching out to trusted community members to spread the word about Philly’s tap — teachers, church leaders, community groups. Gallagher said the coalition wants the message to come from other city residents, not from the Water Department.
“Because of that finding around the fact that we see a higher proportion of lower-income, less-educated, more-disenfranchised populations drinking bottled more often, we really wanted the Philly Tap ambassadors to be from these underserved communities.”
Gallagher first noticed the disconnect between those who drink Philly’s tap water and those who don’t when she began running surveys for the Philadelphia Water Department four years ago. She has seen the same figures on bottled-water consumption every year since, which signaled an information gap that the coalition is now trying to fill.
The campaign is a one-year pilot project, though Gallagher hopes the work continues.
“We’re hoping to learn a lot and then decide what phase two is,” she said.
For a project like Drink Philly Tap to succeed, Ali said, it needs to continue to engage the community and can’t be a one-off.
“People have to build trust after it’s been eroded,” he said. “It’s almost like a relationship. Once you break that trust, it takes a lot of work to get it back again.”
WHYY is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.