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Latinos Assured Water Is OK

Health: Many cling to fears that tap supply is unsafe. The MWD hopes to convince them it's pure and cheap.

July 31, 2001|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't drink the water.

It's a warning repeated often to anyone growing up in Mexico.

So when Maria Hernandez uses tap water in her apartment in Maywood, she knows what to do. She boils it first, just as she did in the Mexican town where she grew up.

Buying filtered water is expensive for her struggling family of five children, but the alternative is worse, she said.

"And if we die, who's going to bury us?" asked Hernandez outside a store called Agua Aqui that sells purified water.

After surveys found that Latinos are more likely than whites to buy bottled water, the Metropolitan Water District this year began a Latino outreach program to promote tap water. Not only is the water that flows from the faucets safe, the ads say, but it costs a lot less than bottled water.

"There is no sense in paying for what you don't have to pay for," said Art Aguilar, spokesman for the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which supports the MWD-led effort.

Officials of Southern California's largest water supplier are evaluating the two-month pilot program that targeted East Los Angeles residents. They hope to use it in other heavily Latino communities across the MWD service area, which stretches from San Diego to Ventura counties.

The program includes signs and bus ads as well as informational booths at health fairs.

Water quality remains a sensitive issue across Southern California. In recent years, sales of bottled water have surged as the industry capitalizes on a widespread perception that tap water is dangerous.

"It's not safe," said Celsa Soto as she purchased bottled water in the Colonia neighborhood of Oxnard. Soto, who moved to Oxnard from the Mexican state of Guerrero two years ago, has always used bottled water. She sees no reason to start drinking from the tap.

"Tap water smells bad," Soto said. "Like chlorine."

MWD officials, curious about consumer attitudes on water quality, launched a survey in 1997 and were surprised by the results.

The study found that 82% of Latinos drink at least some bottled water, compared to 68% of whites. Many of the Latinos surveyed had lived in the country less than five years.

"It was counterintuitive to us," said Marcia Torobin, an MWD environmental specialist. "Usually you think of bottled water [usage] as more in the vein of Perrier, and that you would see it more on the Westside of Los Angeles."

Subsequent focus group research revealed that Latinos--both recent immigrants and longtime residents--share common views on water quality. For many, a strong motivation is fear of communicable diseases.

"They are raised with the prohibition: Do not ever drink water out of a tap. And they bring that set of behaviors here," said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.

"You can be in the poorest neighborhood in Los Angeles and the water won't give you a disease. But they remain concerned about it nonetheless."

Researchers also think Latinos may be more sensitive to how water tastes. In the focus groups, they found that some immigrants categorized drinking water as agua pesada (heavy water) or agua lijera (light water). The descriptions, Bautista said, may suggest that some ancient attitudes still endure in modern Los Angeles, though he said more research is needed.

"It seems to be a pre-Hispanic categorization of water at work today . . . possibly indigenous-based categories," Bautista said.

Consumers interviewed at the water stores that are common in many poor immigrant neighborhoods were unfamiliar with the descriptive terms. They said bottled water is preferred in part because they don't like the taste of tap water, most of which is chlorinated to kill bacteria.

"Tap water tastes nasty," said Oscar Avena, a Huntington Park resident, as he bought his weekly 10-gallon supply of filtered water.

For others, taste is a secondary concern.

Maria Granado, a clerk at a Maywood water store, believes her husband and a neighbor both died of stomach cancer caused by drinking only tap water. She has drunk only filtered water since moving to this country from Guadalajara 30 years ago.

Javier Cervantes said people living in industrial areas will always have doubts about water quality, especially those like himself who live in southeast Los Angeles County, which suffers from some of the worst pollution in the county.

"We live in an industrial area," he said. "Who knows what's underground?"

Maria Cervantes of Oxnard posed a similar question. Cervantes, 47, and her 81-year-old mother fetch water a couple of times a week.

"Who knows what's in the tap water?" asked Cervantes, who is from a town in Michoacan where tap water is not potable and residents rely on well water. "I think this is healthier."

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