Chronic dehydration is a problem, and it affects Latino, African-American kids disproportionately

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Not enough kids are drinking water, and that can cause serious health problems. Los Angeles County and the L.A. Unified School District are trying to make clean water more attractive and available.

A Harvard study published in June in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than half of all U.S. children and adolescents, especially black and Latino kids, don’t drink enough water.

Chronic dehydration can put kids at risk for health problems that include fatigue, joint pain, cognitive and emotional problems and digestive disorders, according to recent studies and experts.

Percent of children chronically under-hydrated by race/ethnicity. Data from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

School, community and students groups have taken up water’s cause in a variety of ways across the region. There are state and national regulations in place that require access to water; what is tricky for advocates is getting kids to drink it. Efforts include everything from school plumbing upgrades to raising water’s cool factor to installing sleek "hydration stations" on campuses.

"When you look at water it’s zero calories but yet you need it to survive and to live a fruitful life," says Hector Gutierrez, a nutrition policy analyst who works on water access for the California Food Policy Advocates. "So we are trying to change the paradigm and make water the beverage of choice."

Experts say school is a natural target for efforts to make water more attractive, since kids spend so much of their time there. But there's a lot of work to do. 

"Disgusting" water fountains

At Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, senior Joshua Guzman says the general consensus here is that the water fountains are "disgusting."

"They are dirty, sometimes undrinkable. Half of them don’t work, the water doesn’t come out right. There is trash all over them sometimes," says Guzman.

Gutierrez says Jefferson is not alone.

“A lot of these schools [in California] are very old and have old infrastructure," says Gutierrez. "The water might be hot, or the drinking fountain might be kind of decrepit."

Mark Hovatter oversees facilities for the L.A. Unified School District. He says the first job for his department has been to make sure school water fountains aren’t making matters worse.

"Several years ago we did testing and found out our water has lead concentration above the EPA’s recommended tolerances," he said.

So, Hovatter says, every day for the past seven years, a staff member at every district school has been required to run each fountain for 30 seconds to clean out the tap – a process called flushing.

"Any fountains we had that could not be corrected by flushing was taken out of service," he says.

Flushing has been going on since 1999, according to the district, but not as uniformly as it has been since 2008.  Every site must fill out a log and turn it into the district each month.

The district says it has 40,839 fountains and some may have more than one water outlet. Of that total, 2,839 are shut off and another 7,200 are categorized as broken or not working properly.

Hydration stations

District officials estimate daily flushing is wasting nearly 2.5 million gallons of water a year. That was one of the reasons why LAUSD's Board of Education approved a $20 million plan last month to replace old and broken fountains.

Hovatter says there will be fewer fountains, but the plan will make up for that by installing so-called hydration stations.

The stations are not water fountains. "You can actually take a water bottle and put it under and it fills that water bottle for you," Hovatter says, adding that the plan is to install at least three or four of these stations at every district campus within two years.

Jefferson High School is ahead of the game. Last spring, students in an after school program called Health Academy took on the issue of water. The Academy, run by the National Health Foundation, teaches students how to identify challenges in their own communities around food, beverage and exercise issues and create projects to address those concerns. 

Senior high schooler Guzman said the group created a plan to attack the water issue way back in January.

"We started analyzing every single water fountain, we went to every single one, counted them, wrote down what was wrong with them, what their appearance,  how the water tasted, how the water flowed," says Guzman. 

A student initiative

The kids in the Health Academy also surveyed their fellow students. They found that 63 percent of the students they surveyed said they do not drink water from the fountains at school. The top two reasons: fountains are dirty and they don’t like the water.

Statistics in hand, the students were able to secure a free hydration station from Brita and raised the $8,000 to install the water dispenser from the South Central Neighborhood Council and the Central Alameda Neighborhood Council, says Alba Pena, who helps teach at the Academy for the National Health Foundation.

The station went in last month in the main building of the historic school at 41st Street and Compton Avenue in L.A.

Sophomore Andrea Ortega helped lead the effort.

"One thing I really like, is just bring a water bottle and it's carryable. I have band and after school we come get water," she says. "Band members come here to get water because we need to refresh a lot so we come here and just go back to practice. It’s really good, I really enjoy this."

Experts say efforts like this are important not only because there are negative health effects from not drinking enough water. There are other serious problems caused by what kids are drinking when they're not drinking water.

"Choose water"

That's why there are also efforts going on across the county to teach kids of all ages about the dangers of too many sugary drinks.

County officials recently joined in chorus with a group of preschoolers at a community center near downtown L.A. to chant "Choose health, choose water." The event kicked off a marketing campaign to get parents to cut back on sugary drinks for their kids.

"We are very concerned because California has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of obesity among young children 2-4 of any state in the nation," says Paul Simon, director of the division of chronic disease and injury prevention for the L.A. County Department of Public Health. "And we see in L.A. County even higher rates of obesity."

The experts acknowledge it’s always going to be tough for water to compete against beverages like Coca-Cola, Orange Crush and Sunny Delight.

Even efforts to make it easier for kids who want water have to be carefully thought out.

For example, the new hydration station at Jefferson High School gets very lonely at lunch time. It was installed in a building that’s mostly closed off to students at that time of day. To get there kids have to leave the lunch area and re-enter the school through the front door.

This story was corrected on Oct. 19, 2015 to reflect that the National Health Foundation runs - rather than funds - the Jefferson High School Health Academy. The funding comes from the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

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