Water Sustainability Grant For Investigating Water Use in a Border Community

By Lara dos Passos Coggin, Ph.D. | The University of Arizona ADVANCE | Fall 2011 | Volume 4, Issue 4

By Lara dos Passos Coggin, Ph.D. | The University of Arizona ADVANCE | Fall 2011 | Volume 4, Issue 4

Drs. Paloma Beamer and Kelly ReynoldsThe Water Sustainability Program, the Institute of the Environment, and the Renewable Energy network recently awarded funding to four UA researchers for a project entitled "Risk perception, drinking water source and quality in a low-income Latino community along the US- Mexico Border."

The research team includes Paloma Beamer, PhD, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona (Dr. Beamer also holds an appointment in Engineering), Kelly Reynolds, PhD, MSPH, an associate professor and microbiologist in the College of Public Health, Nolan Cabrera, PhD, an assistant professor of Education Policy Studies and Practice in the College of Education, and Kerton Victory, MS, an Environmental Health Sciences doctoral student in the College of Public Health.

Together, these scholars will investigate patterns of water consumption in Nogales, Ariz, where families who can ill afford the expense often buy bottled water because of concerns about health risks from tap water. Looking back on the genesis of the project, Dr. Beamer recalls the study that initially led her to observe this water consumption pattern:

"It started with a study that I did last year in Nogales where we were looking at chemicals in breast milk, and [collecting] water samples from the home. I just thought it was really odd [...] that about 85 percent of the households drank bottled water or some other water that they purchased and that over half of them cooked with that water [...]. That seems, for a low income community, really high. So that aspect [of the present project] started with me asking why are they doing that, is it just that they are perceiving that there's a risk?"

Dr. Beamer and her colleagues, by partnering with the Mariposa Community Health Center in Nogales, will be able to participate directly in the translation of data analysis into concrete action pathways for southern Arizona families: "If we're able to show that tap water is of equal quality to bottled water (a lot of community members buy their water from vending machines in the grocery store, where you bring your own containers) [or] we are able to show that tap water might be superior to that, we might be able to help these families save [...] money, and there are statistics out there on how much money that would save. And we'd also be able to reduce [...] waste, from a sustainability point of view, so, less need to transport bottled water, less need to use plastics [...]. In a region like Arizona, our concern is about drinking water and where we're going in the future, [so] I think it's really important to look at where the sources are."

For Beamer, there is a place-based quality uniting this project and her previous research: "That's a passion, I think, [...] to relate somehow to vulnerable populations [...] and the border in particular I find intriguing; it's part of why [I] chose to come to Arizona."

In addition to bringing together UA researchers with community workers, the grant will allow Dr. Reynolds to train several students to test for water quality. It will also provide a data collection platform for Mr. Victory's doctoral research.

With research encompassing cross-disciplinary methods and aiming for immediate relevance to a local community, Beamer's colleagues reflect the diversity necessary to accomplish such a broad research agenda. Beamer predicts that "the next step in our project is [to] communicate [water quality] risks more effectively, and I think that's going to require some more interactions with social sciences."

Accordingly, the research team comprises an environmental engineer (Dr. Beamer), a microbiologist (Dr. Reynolds), a social scientist in the College of Education (Dr. Cabrera), and a nutritional scientist (Mr. Victory).

Dr. Reynolds' work will provide expertise in water sampling, analysis, and risk assessment, while Dr. Cabrera will contribute a background in risk perception research with farm workers, expertise in survey instrument development, and statistical analysis of survey data. Meanwhile, Mr. Victory will help the team consider possible nutritional differences (such as fluoride content) between bottled and tap water.

Read more:  http://www.advance.arizona.edu/newsletters/ADVANCE_Vol4Issue4.pdf