The Los Angeles City Council’s review of a proposal to ban water bottle retail sales at city agencies and large entertainment venues is the first step towards a city-wide bottle ban. For many Angelenos, a total ban on water bottles is a minor inconvenience.
But the city’s low-income and minority communities, where long-term water quality challenges have created a distrust of tap water and reliance on bottled water, have a radically different view and much more at stake — losing access to safe drinking water. A broad bottle ban would remove a critical resource for those communities while doing nothing to address the underlying problems that require its use in the first place.
While access to safe drinking water is a daily issue for many low-income populations, more affluent communities around Los Angeles, like Beverly Hills and Westlake Village, have no such concern. Safe, clean tap water flowing from their faucets is a given, and a water bottle ban would have little impact on their lives.
That is not the case for those in our community and others who face a greater likelihood of water quality issues. We turn on the faucet with trepidation, wondering whether the water coming out is safe for us to drink. And for good reason—the water conditions in South Los Angeles, are having an extreme effect on people of color, contains very high levels of “forever chemicals,” like PFAS. As the name implies, these chemicals don’t break down in the environment.
The poor water quality puts us at risk for serious health issues, such as cancer, liver, and kidney problems. The Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey water contamination crises, which heavily impacted minority communities, have exacerbated our concerns and fears—leading to a distrust of the tap water from our faucets. Our alternative is clean and healthy bottled water.
The drinking water challenges extend beyond our homes and into our local schools, with many in LA’s low-income neighborhoods testing for lead levels greater than federal limits—putting our children at significant risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that such exposure “results in substantial, population-level effects on children’s intellectual and academic abilities, problem behaviors, and birth weight.”
Water bottles can provide safe drinking water for these children until policymakers resolve the underlying infrastructural issues causing water safety concerns.
The unfortunate truth is that state and local policymakers have done little to alleviate our water infrastructure problems or water quality issues. This despite California being the first state to declare that access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water as a human right—a noble vision that has yet to become a reality for all Californians. Today, over 370 water systems fail to meet state standards—and more than two-thirds are in disadvantaged communities like mine.
State officials have failed to prioritize funding applications to improve failing water systems, with processing times doubling from 17 to 33 months according to a 2022 audit. In Los Angeles, notable institutions, including UCLA’s Institute on Environment & Sustainability, have offered recommendations to address water system failures, but policymakers have been slow to respond.
A city-wide bottle ban is not a solution for ailing water infrastructure, nor is it an answer to water quality challenges. We need policies that will address the disparities, distrust, and infrastructure challenges that exist within the City’s diverse communities.
The LA City Council should take a step back and sit down with families who worry about the color and quality of the water coming out of their taps and whether their children have safe drinking water at school. Or meet with the many charitable organizations that pass out bottled water to the less fortunate, including those living on the street.
For council members and other proponents, it’s easy to view a water bottle ban as smart sustainability policy. After all, they have full trust in their tap water. But to the low-income and minority communities who are struggling with long-term water quality issues, a bottle ban would see their only clean water resource disappear and represent yet another environmental injustice and an ongoing violation of their “fundamental right.”
Earl “Skip” Cooper II is the board chair and president emeritus of the Black Business Association and founder of the Earl Skip Cooper Foundation.