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New public art projects in North Philly urge residents to drink the city’s tap water

The vivid artwork, Drink More Tap, is one of two “sister” murals commissioned by the city’s Water Department, to address a vital topic: water consumption.

Drink More Tap mural, designed by Salvadoran artist CALO Rosa, at Penrose Recreation Center. The mural features images of local residents and addresses community distrust in tap water.
Drink More Tap mural, designed by Salvadoran artist CALO Rosa, at Penrose Recreation Center. The mural features images of local residents and addresses community distrust in tap water.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

At the corner of North Sixth and West Master Streets, the bright-blue walls stand out to passersby. Yellow and purple asymmetrical shapes stand in contrast with the gray larger-than-life images of community members who frequently visit the Narcisa S. Cruz Playground.

The vivid artwork, Drink More Tap, is one of two “sister” murals commissioned by the city’s Water Department to address a vital topic: water consumption. The second mural, at the Penrose Recreation Center on Susquehanna Avenue and North 12th Street, was unveiled in late September.

Surveys conducted in February and March this year by the Water Department, with support from the University of Pennsylvania, found that although Philly’s tap water meets federal standards, about 40% of all city residents drink bottled water at home, not tap. Data also showed that communities with the least disposable income spend the most on bottled water, according to the city agency.

At the mural unveiling at Cruz Playground this week, Water Commissioner Randy Hayman said the finding inspired the Drink More Tap campaign, which intends through both visual and performing arts to educate residents about the benefits of drinking Philly’s tap water.

“It’s our responsibility to educate residents, by showing knowledge, as well as being transparent and inclusive,” the commissioner said.

According to the Water Department’s 2020 Drinking Water Quality Report, Philly‘s tap water is sourced from the Schuylkill River and Delaware River watersheds, treated in three processing plants in the region, where the river water is disinfected, filtered, and balanced to regulate its acidity and mineral components such as zinc and fluoride.

Water Department experts, the report says, travel the city to collect more than 400 samples of drinking water every month, from sites such as fire and police stations, to test the levels of chlorine added at the processing plant and to check that the water is fresh and safe. According to the report, the monthly average of residential chlorine in Philly’s tap water is 1.8 ppm to 2.4 ppm, which is within the federal limits.

A 2018 Penn State analysis indicated that Black and Hispanic adults in the United States are half as likely as whites to drink tap water and more than twice as likely to drink bottled water. The findings support past research that suggests that these populations have a higher distrust of tap water, and that those who commonly consume bottled water are at greater risk of health issues and financial burdens.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s data from 2016-2019, public water systems across the U.S. that constantly violate the Safe Drinking Water Act are 40% more likely to serve people of color, and take longer to come back into compliance among these communities.

Both art projects, developed in partnership with Parks and Recreation and Mural Arts Philadelphia, were designed by Philly-based Salvadoran artist Calo Rosa, who was commissioned by the agencies in 2019 to produce public art along with community members and residents.

Both centers are located in Philly’s 19122 zip code, which, according to Census data, is 35% Black and 26% Hispanic and/or Latino, despite being affected by gentrification the last decade. According to the Water Department, the two recreation centers are located in neighborhoods where bottled water consumption is most common.

John Gillette, from South Kensington, bought two cases of 24 bottles at Cousin’s Supermarket on Fifth and Berks Streets on Friday morning. He said the weekly purchase is to satisfy his household’s preference: None of the eight members in his family drinks tap.

”I used to supervise maintenance at a hospital and that’s were I learned that tap water is bad for your skin,” he said. Some dermatologists have weighed in on the use of tap water for skin care routines, but not whether drinking tap could affect skin health.

Other customers, such as Miriam Serpa and Angelina Capó, said they don’t like the taste of Philly’s tap water. “In 1999, tap used to taste fresh, but as of the last four years, it tastes like Clorox,” Capó said about her experience living in the city’s West Kensington neighborhood for more than 20 years.

Though Philadelphia tap water meets federal standards for safe drinking, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group notes that Philly’s water exceeds the guidelines set for seven chemical contaminants watched by the organization. The Environmental Working Group sets standards that go beyond federal rules and reviews scientific evidence, legal standards, state guidelines, and health advisories to define its own much stricter standards.

The art installations took shape alongside a music project produced by the Philadelphia-based AfrotaÍno collective, which composed songs to convey messages about the benefits to choosing tap over bottled water and sugary drinks that come in single-use plastic containers. The collective performances were held last year.