Parents From Lower-Income Families Less Likely to Say Child’s Water Supply is Safe at Both Home and School

February 17, 2020 5:00 AM

Nearly a quarter of parents in national poll aren’t confident in the safety of their home tap water. Steps parents can take to ensure their children’s drinking water is safe.

Graphic of water droplets in varying shades of blue

Parents from lower-income families are less likely to describe their home tap water as safe, say their water has been tested or feel confident in the quality of drinking fountain water at their child’s school compared with higher income peers, a new national poll suggests.

Two-thirds of parents from households earning over $100,000 report that both home tap water and school drinking fountains are safe for their child to drink, compared to only half of those earning under $50,000 per year, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan.

“Water plays a vital role in children’s health and development, Unfortunately, not all U.S. children have access to safe drinking water,” says Mott Poll co-director and pediatric research scientist Sarah Clark, M.P.H.

Overall, three in four parents say their home tap water is safe for their child to drink, but another 13% say their tap water is not safe and 11% are unsure. This feedback was consistent regardless of whether the home water source was a city water system, a rural water system or well water.

“Only three quarters of parents polled said their home tap water is safe to drink, with substantial differences by household income,” Clark says. “Disparities in access to safe drinking water for children is a significant public health issue that warrants attention.”

Is this water safe to drink infographic

The nationally-representative Mott Poll report is based on responses from 1,940 parents who had at least one child age 2-18 years

Higher-income parents polled were substantially more likely than those from lower-income households to say their home tap water has been tested and is safe (80% versus 62%.) Clark points to several potential factors, including that lower-priced housing may have old water lines and plumbing, and because poorer communities may have limited funding for water system upgrades.   

Steps parents can take to ensure their children’s water supply at home and school is clean and safe.

Find water testing results for your home tap water

For most families, this will fall under testing of the city or rural water system. For families with residential well water, this may include testing of the groundwater in the area and the well itself.

State and federal regulations establish specific requirements for water testing, but in many cases, parents may not have thought to look for this information, Clark says. One third of parents polled believe the city or county would notify them if there was a problem with their home water supply—but parents should be careful with that assumption.

Families may search for “water quality” on their local government website or contact their local water authority and ask for a copy of the most recent annual drinking water quality report.

“Parents may not know how their city or county communicates the results of water testing,” Clark says. “Rather than assume, parents should seek out water safety information through their local government website or their community’s water treatment plant.”

Contact your local water treatment facility if you have questions or concerns

A good first question to ask is whether the water supply in the area is compliant with all Safe Drinking Water Act standards. If not, ask about the problems and what is being done to address them.

And if it’s difficult to understand the technical language used in water testing reports, parent shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask questions.

“Ask the experts to explain the information in plain language,” Clark says.

Public water supply tests also might not detect contamination that occurs within the home, such as from lead pipes, so some parents choose to do additional testing. Families relying on residential well water may also consider further tests, Clark says.

If there is a person in the household with a significant medical problem – such as a child with cancer who is immunocompromised, parents may want to have a phone conversation with water experts to get clear guidance on whether it is safe for that person to drink the tap water.

 If you find a problem, act promptly

People who live in older homes with older plumbing and fixtures might seek additional testing for lead and copper. In areas with known water problems, parents should also pay close attention to information from their community water authority, especially guidance around whether it’s safe to drink the water.

Some communities offer free testing for residents who are concerned about their water quality, but parents should contact their local government to find out the policy in their area. 

If families choose to seek a third party vendor for water testing, they should check if the tester is an accredited drinking water facility.

Sixteen percent of parents in the Mott Poll say they would know if their water is unsafe by its taste and smell. But some contaminants, such as lead, have no taste or color or odor, Clark says. Parents may also judge water discolored by iron as unsafe, when this is an aesthetic issue rather than a sign of unsafe water.

“There is no substitute for testing water for safety,” Clark says.

If there is a water safety problem, the appropriate solution may range from a filter attached to the faucet to the replacement of lead-corroding pipes.

“The bottom line for parents is this: Your children need clean water to drink every day,” Clark says. “If you have any concerns about the safety of the water at home or at school, it’s very important to gather information, talk with experts, and take whatever action you think is necessary.”

Sarah Clark, MPH
"Your children need clean water to drink every day. If you have any concerns about the safety of the water at home or at school, it’s very important to gather information, talk with experts, and take whatever action you think is necessary."
Sarah Clark, M.P.H.

Work with school officials to ensure safe water for all students

When children are at school or preschool, 68% of parents polled believe it is safe for them to use the drinking fountain, while 5% of parents say the drinking fountains are unsafe, and 27% are unsure.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that schools test their drinking water for lead to confirm it is safe for students, but there aren’t any universal requirements to do so.

In the absence of testing, bottled water can also be a solution, Clark says.

“Many schools are just beginning to think about water testing. Don’t assume it’s already happening,” Clark says. “Parents can contact school administrators to find out if the water at school has been tested. If tests show that the water is unsafe, parents should work together to ensure funding for bottled water options for all students.”

Make careful decisions about home water treatment

A common question for parents is whether they need a home water treatment system. Clark says parents should think carefully about their family’s needs and the functionality and effectiveness of the water treatment systems under consideration.

In homes where the water has tested as unsafe, a filter attached to the faucet may be sufficient to remove a contaminant like lead, she says. In cases where home tap water meets water quality standards, parents may use a water filter to improve taste.

However, some home treatment systems remove elements from water that actually improve public health and safety. Rather than fall prey to marketing claims, parents should seek information from water experts about whether and what type of home water treatment would benefit their family.

“Parents don’t want to make a decision that offers little benefit, and the possibility of reduced health and safety,” Clark says.