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The Times Poll : 4 in 10 Statewide Avoid Tap Water

September 20, 1986|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Staff Writer

Nearly four out of 10 Californians have turned to bottled water or home-filtration devices as their principal source of drinking water, chiefly because they believe that it tastes better than tap water but also out of concern for their health, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

In Los Angeles County, almost half of the residents use bottled or home-filtered water, the highest percentage in the state.

Forty-eight percent of Los Angeles County residents said bottled or home-filtered water was their "usual" source of drinking water, contrasted with 42% of those living in the rest of Southern California, 33% in the San Francisco Bay Area and 22% in the rest of Northern California.

Statewide Findings

On a statewide basis, 60% drink tap water, 26% drink bottled water and 11% drink home-filtered tap water. The Times Poll interviewed 1,550 registered California voters by telephone for six days ending Sept. 9.

The findings come at a time when public interest and debate over water contamination has become a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign and has spawned a initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot to safeguard drinking water. Backers of Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Initiative, have repeatedly warned about contamination of drinking water wells by dangerous chemicals, declaring that "the poisoning of our water supplies is insidious."

Proposition 65 is supported by an overwhelming majority of Californians, the poll found, with 68% in favor and 16% against.

Yet despite widespread reports of contaminated water wells, the Times Poll found that on a statewide basis, taste outdistanced safety as the principal reason that Californians were drinking bottled or home-filtered water.

Viewed geographically, taste was a bigger reason than safety for buying bottled or home-filtered water in Southern California, while health issues were more important in Northern California.

Taste Cited as Reason

In Los Angeles County, 45% of people who drink bottled or home-filtered water do so because of its taste. Only 20% said they drink it strictly because they believed that it was safer. Another 34% use bottled or filtered water for both taste and safety reasons.

In the rest of Southern California, 36% of those using bottled or home-filtered water did so because of taste, 36% for safety and 27% for both reasons. In the Bay Area, only 22% used bottled or home-filtered water for its taste, contrasted with 28% for health reasons and 44% for both reasons. In the rest of Northern California, taste was the principal reason that 28% of respondents use bottled or home-filtered water, while 35% cited safety reasons and another 31% listed both reasons for their choice.

Whatever the reasons, sales of bottled water are skyrocketing. The industry reported $1.3 billion in sales nationally last year--most of it home delivered--and is looking for a 12% to 15% growth each year through 1990, according to William F. Deal, executive vice president of the International Bottled Water Assn. in Alexandria, Va. He said 40% of all bottled drinking water is sold in California.

Water officials suggest that bottled water sales are high in the Los Angeles area because of intensive advertising and marketing of the product and because much of the area's supply--particularly water from the Colorado River--is high in minerals that affect taste.

At the same time, officials say there is no doubt that the public is concerned about the safety of its water.

"The public is not sure what they are drinking," state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate Toxics Committee, said recently. "It's not like the old days where you could see mud in the water. Now there are many chemicals that you can't see or know what the short-term or long-term impact is. That's what's so frightening."

Last March, the state Department of Health Services reported that of 535 drinking water wells tested in the Los Angeles Basin, 336 were found to be tainted by hazardous chemicals. Toxic concentrations in 46% of the contaminated wells exceeded the state's recommended health safety limits. Thirty-three chemicals--some of them cancer causing--were detected. There have been similar reports in Santa Clara County and the San Joaquin Valley.

All the contaminated wells have either been shut down or their water is being diluted to bring concentrations of chemicals within acceptable levels.

Contamination occurs when toxic chemicals seep into underground drinking water aquifers from hazardous waste dumps, municipal landfills, industrial sites, leaking underground chemical and fuel storage tanks, sewage systems, pesticide-laced farmlands and accidental and deliberate dumping by homeowners and businesses.

Reasons Differ

Educational and income levels did not appear to have a major bearing on whether a family used unfiltered tap water or bottled water. Nearly as many lower-income people were drinking bottled water as higher-income families. But, their reasons were measurably different.

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