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Sugary juice accompanies a student’s lunch at the Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez primary school in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. Schools sell juices and sodas to students, who don’t have access to clean drinking water during the day. Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Mexican Students Choose Sugary Drinks Over Contaminated Water


Studies have shown that in one Mexican town, all the water sources are contaminated. Students there are forgoing water – but the alternative may be just as bad for their health.

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — In many schools in this hilly Mexican town, children go without an essential item: water from a clean, safe source. Their options are to drink water from school taps or to drink cheap, sugary beverages. But school taps pose a great risk, because they draw from the town’s untreated water supply.

“The water is bad in San Cristóbal. If it reaches the girls and boys, the probability of infection is high,” says Saúl Kenji Pío Robles Ramírez, participation coordinator at the Programa Agua Segura en Escuelas, a water safety program run by the nonprofit Fundación Cántaro Azul.

So children here turn to low-cost sodas and juices, which are available for sale at school.

“There is a great distrust of drinking water, which leads to higher consumption of sugary drinks,” says Dr. Marcos Arana Cedeño, a researcher with the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán, a medical institute. “The low cost of sugary drinks and poor access to drinking water contribute to greater consumption of these beverages.”

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Workers clean an area of the water source Humedales de Montaña La Kisst, which has accumulated garbage. Experts say poor access to clean drinking water leads the area’s residents, children especially, to turn to sugary drinks.

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

People have reason to be wary of the drinking water: According to a recent study, every water distribution point in San Cristóbal de las Casas was found to have fecal contamination. There are no water treatment plants; the rivers receive all wastewater.

“We dispose of our feces into the rivers, the rivers get contaminated, they reach the houses – they are the same waters that irrigate the gardens,” says Ane Galdos Balzategui, a water-quality researcher and one of the authors of the microbial-risk study.

The health training center Centro de Capacitación en Ecología y Salud para Campesinos (CCESC), founded by Arana Cedeño, is studying children’s consumption of sugary drinks. The study has focused on 544 students at four schools and found that some are consuming up to 170 sugary products a week, Arana Cedeño says.

Arana Cedeño says that Coca-Cola and juice are the most-consumed sugary drinks. Coca-Cola is sold right outside of schools.

Consumption of so many sugary drinks comes at a cost.

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Families spend time with their children at a park in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. When people bring food or drinks to a picnic, sugary drinks like Coca-Cola are often part of the meal.

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

According to the Centro de Investigación en Nutrición y Salud of the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, a national health resource center, “children with habitual consumption of sugary drinks between meals were 2.4 times more likely to be overweight in comparison to non-consuming children. High consumption of sugary drinks among children and adolescents predicts weight gain in adulthood.”

José Antonio Robles Córdoba, 10, is a student at the Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez primary school.

He says he knows water is better than sugary drinks, and he knows such drinks can cause diabetes, obesity and sickness.

“That’s why it’s better to drink pure water that takes away your thirst, instead of sugary things that stop your thirst at first and later make you thirstier,” Córdoba says.

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San Cristóbal de las Casas lacks water-treatment plants. In this portion of the water distribution point Humedales de Montaña La Kisst, a sign implores residents to preserve local water.

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

But he and his family do not always choose water, he says.

“Sometimes we drink sugary beverages. When we spend time together, we drink soda,” Córdoba says.

Robles Ramírez says that hydrated children learn more and are less absent from school. But without clean, safe drinking water at school, kids don’t have much choice.

“If you ask [boys and girls] what is better to drink, water or soda, they will tell you water, but there is not a clear relationship with doing it,” he says.

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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