January 2, 2020
According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (EPA), more than one billion gallons of water is delivered each day from reservoirs upstate to more than eight million customers in New York City. The EPA also asserts that New York City water is world-renowned for its quality — which seems in contrast to the fact that New Yorkers buy about a billion bottles of drinking water a day.
Why is this? Does perception not match the reality of water in New York City? Or is the water truly deserving of its “world-renowned” status?
Two professors in the Social Sciences, Human Services and Criminal Justice Department at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY); Henry Bulley, a geospatial scientist and Brenda Vollman, a social scientist, are leading a three-student team to examine the situation.
Under their leadership, BMCC students Emmanuel Ologundudu, Sarah Stillman and Zhimei Xie are canvassing New Yorkers and collecting public water drinking water samples, in order to correlate water quality with perceptions — all of which inform consumers’ bottled, tap and fountain water choices.
The project is part of the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP) at BMCC and includes a survey for New Yorkers on their perceptions of water quality and water usage choice. The students have also conducted lab tests to analyze the quality of commercially available bottled water, and they have tested samples of water from drinking fountains throughout the city. They also integrated into their results, spatial analyses using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to understand the unique influence of place or neighborhood characteristics on these choices.
Building context by reviewing current literature
As the research began, each of three student researchers collected peer-reviewed articles that focus on perceptions of water quality, water usage patterns and the impact of treatment methods on bottled water. They annotated bibliographies of the articles they selected, and developed one research question to guide their participation in the project.
Science major Ologundudu says that while tap water is regulated by the EPA, bottled water companies follow standards regulated by the Food and Drug Association (FDA) and the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). The problem, he says, is that while the FDA regulates bottled water as a food, it cannot require certified lab testing or violation reporting.
“Furthermore, the FDA does not require bottled water companies to disclose to consumers where the water came from,” Ologundudu says. “Many of us drink from the tap or decide to spend money on bottled water, yet we do not know the origin of the water or how it is handled.”
Business major Zhimei Xie is gaining a social perspective on water usage habits, through her research. “I’m from China,” she says. “I drink boiled water. Drinking boiled water is the habit of everybody know and it is my family’s daily habit.”
The literature review she conducted at the start of the project, “allowed me to understand people’s responses to their water usage, taking into account their geographical location, habits, customs, beliefs and other factors,” she says.
Results viewed through a physical and social lens
Traveling together around New York City to collect samples from water fountains in Union Square Park, Washington Square Park and other areas, the students worked closely with Professor Bulley to assess its nitrate levels and other factors. They applied the same tests to commercially bottled water samples, using paper testing strips to measure the pH level, or level of acidity, as well as water “hardness,” the level of dissolved solids.
“Water hardness is not generally a health concern, but it can indicate the level of minerals in the water,” says Professor Bulley. “It can also be annoying if the water is really hard, because it is less effective at rinsing off soap. Of more concern are amounts of naturally occurring arsenic or other harmful factors.”
Through the lens of social science, Professor Vollman is helping students administer a survey instrument to examine possible links between water quality perceptions and water consumption behavior.
“The students are inviting people to self-select and anonymously take part in the research, by accessing an online survey through the QR code on a hard-copy flyer,” she says. “They are personally handing out the flyers on the BMCC campus and other neighborhoods around the city. Similarly, the students are sending out email versions of the PDF flyer and posting it on social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit and others, to increase the participation of BMCC students and NYC residents at large.”
The next stage, Vollman says, will be to assign numerical values to responses, and analyze patterns that might correlate with neighborhoods and other factors.
Research that could impact public policy and student goals
“This collaborative, mentored project has yielded collaboration with other CUNY faculty at Hunter College, and we’ve submitted PSC-CUNY and CUNY Interdisciplinary Research Grant proposals,” says Bulley, who hopes their efforts will yield National Science Foundation (NSF)- or National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funding for their work.
“That would enable us to continue our work and gather findings to impact public awareness and policy,” he says. “If it’s actually safe to drink tap water and people know that, fewer people will use bottled water, and that could have an impact on sustainability concerns about plastic water bottles and caps in major urban areas across the country.”
Meanwhile, the students are gaining both cultural perspectives and insight into resource management.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, if you drink commercially bottled water you should read the label and look for treatment information such as, ‘Reverse osmosis treated’, ‘Distilled’ or ‘Filtered through one micron or smaller filter’,” says Ologundudu, whose aspiration is to become a medical surgeon. He points out that harmful bacteria like Cryptosporidium, also known as “Crypto,” can be present in bottled water, and some treatment methods are not effective in removing it.
Fellow researcher Xie, whose goal is to become a business executive, has a different perspective. “One of the indicators of progress in a country is people’s health,” she points out. “Water and air quality directly affect people’s lives. Buying bottled water is a habit that many young people have developed. From the perspective of the commodity market, bottled water already has a fixed consumer group.”
Ultimately, she says, “I am very glad to have this opportunity to be part of a biological and social research project. I hope I can become a professional economic market investigator, someday, offering insight into people’s views on the items they purchase.”
This article is part of the 2019 Marks of Excellence, an annual publication from the Office of Public Affairs that highlights the outstanding accomplishments of students, faculty and staff. This issue features research projects at BMCC. Please note, the stories will be posted throughout Fall 2019 as both a BMCC News version with video, and a flip-book version.
- BMCC Professors Henry Bulley, a geospatial scientist and Brenda Vollman, a social scientist, are leading a student team to examine how public perception of water quality correlates with the reality of water quality
- The project is part of the CUNY Research Scholars Program at BMCC
- Students distributed a survey to determine New Yorkers’ perception of the water they drink, and collected water samples from drinking fountains throughout the city