I’m not the best person to ask why so many Philadelphians won’t drink their own tap water. I drink city tap water at The Inquirer office at Eighth and Market Streets and it tastes just fine to me, if a bit metallic-y at times.
So photographer David Swanson and I set out to the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia to ask about a dozen residents what they think. The neighborhood’s demographic mix roughly fits those most likely not to drink from the tap, according to city surveys — predominantly minority and lower income. The opinions were frank, even from those who didn’t want to be named. Three women who initially declined to chat because they were in the midst of Bible study later tracked us down to deliver their verdict: definitely bottled.
After agreeing to meet at her home on Delhi Street, Marie Vega emerged with two glasses of water she perched on her front porch and asked us to tell them apart. The water in both glasses looked clear and clean in the bright sunlight, so a visual inspection was no help.
Swanson took a sip and immediately picked out the tap water, saying he detected a taste of sulfur. I thought the tap water was fine but gave a slight edge to the bottled water, because it had a less chlorine taste.
Vega won’t give tap water to her four children and spends about $100 month on bottled water.
“It tastes nasty,” she said, saying tap makes her feel ill.
Diane White, who has lived on Lycoming Avenue for 32 years, drinks both bottled and tap water. Her daughter, she said, will drink only bottled water.
“I let it run for a little while,” White said, “before I drink it.”
The Philadelphia Water Department recommends running any tap that hasn’t been used in a while for several minutes. Taste, residents told us, also seems better after refrigeration.
Iris Roman, waiting for a bus at Ninth and Lycoming, said she drinks only bottled water.
“I don’t like the way it tastes,” Roman said of tap, describing the taste as “heavy.” Her family drinks about two 40-bottle cases a month, she said.
Theresa Demeatris, who lives on Seventh Street, is also a fan of bottled water.
“I don’t like the taste of spigot water no more,” Demeatris said. “It just has that taste, but I don’t know how to describe it.” She does, however, cook with tap.
Demeatris links the taste to the Delaware River. The city pulls its drinking water from an intake on the Delaware and two intakes on the Schuylkill. The water has different properties and taste, depending on which river. For example the Schuylkill water has more calcium carbonate than found in the Delaware, giving it a greater hardness.
A block from Demeatris, Charles McDermott and Angela Jones were visiting Paula Armstrong, who does not share their appreciation of city tap water.
“It don’t taste bad,” McDermott said. “I’m 65 and still alive, so it can’t be that bad."
He acted shocked when asked if drinking water from the Delaware River bothered him.
“It comes from the river?” he asked, feigning surprise.
Jones, 53, said she had no problems with the water.
“I’ve been drinking Sure-kill punch all my life,” she said, using a spin on the Schuylkill punch label some Philadelphians give the water. “So it can’t be that bad. And it’s a lot cheaper from the tap. Why pay 50 cents or $1.50 for a bottle of water? Tap is just about free.”
»THE DELAWARE: The river that made Philadelphia
But Armstrong wasn’t having any of it.
“I drink bottled water,” she said resolutely. “I just like the taste of it. It tastes just a little bit different, just a little bit better.”
Editor’s Note: “From the Source: Stories of the Delaware River” is produced with support from the National Geographic Society, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and the William Penn Foundation. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.