In the U.S. we assume that we have certain rights: the right to vote, the right to a trial, and the right to a family life, which includes access to clean, safe drinking water. It’s a luxury that is not shared by many people on the planet, but which we take for granted in the developed world. However, our ‘First World’ complacency may be unfounded because across America, more and more locations with unsafe drinking water are being discovered. That nasty tasting water from the faucet that you’ve been rejecting in favor of an unhealthy soda might actually have unsafe quantities of lead, nitrates, arsenic and disease-causing pathogens.
A recent study from the National Academy of Sciences found that, since 1982, between 3 percent and 10 percent of the country’s water systems are in violation of the health standards outlined in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. That may not sound like much, but it equates to around 21 million people per year being exposed to unsafe drinking water, or about 6 percent of the U.S population. If you thought Flint, Michigan, was an anomaly, think again.
The fact is, findings like the high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water are all too common. Since that city’s crisis, more reports have emerged showing similar instances of toxic substances in drinking water – from Washington, DC, and North Carolina to Ohio and Mississippi. How did so many places across America end up with unsafe drinking water?
The EPA says the cause is the 3.3 to 10 million banned – but never replaced – lead pipes still in use, as well as the use of water from streams that haven’t been fallen subject to clean water laws limiting toxic pollutants. Such conditions affect over a third of the U.S. population. Worse still, the statistics only take into account lead and toxic substances that are currently regulated, and not any of the newer chemicals that have seeped into our environment which have yet to be evaluated. Additionally, a large number of local water systems contain unsafe levels of other contaminants like nitrates, arsenic and pathogens that can cause gastrointestinal diseases.
The cost of government inaction
China has shown the need for government to get involved in minimizing water pollution to protect its populace. Although the country still falls short, and the numbers are by no means acceptable, levels of lead exposure for urban youth in China have dropped dramatically due to government efforts since the 1990s. Unfortunately, the action came too late for many, serving as a warning sign about the dangers of not having, or enforcing, clean water regulations in the U.S.
Our government has decided to take a similar approach to ensure that tap water in the United States is drinkable and safe. However, the tightening health standards are receiving an unexpectedly mixed response in areas where any government involvement is seen as a violation of rights – even when they’re trying to uphold citizens’ rights to clean drinking water.
The issue is only compounded in lower socio-economic areas, for example in West Texas and Oklahoma, which have repeatedly been in violation of Environmental Protection Agency regulations over the last decade. One thing that Texas, Oklahoma and many other rural regions affected by poor water quality have in common is that they are staunch seats of the Republican Party.
In these places, Fox News has gone to work steadily brainwashing locals into thinking that all government regulation is bad, even if it is to protect their children from lead poisoning. Government efforts to address problems with water supply often encounter hostility and pushback from politicians who are ideologically opposed to regulation in the agriculture and mining industries, where corporations fear increased costs. However, for the people that work for these corporations, the regulations only offer a positive result of clean, safe drinking water.
Trying to convince those who’ve been fed the Republican Party line that “all regulation is bad” draws into question a way of life that arguably prefers disease and death over governmental action to improve people’s health. The tragic, poetic justice of opposing safety regulations so vehemently – and then inevitably suffering the consequences of potentially harmful drinking water for their families and communities – has not be lost on outsiders. But the fact is, in many small towns and rural areas, locals only seem able to see their hatred for the EPA and regulations because Fox News and the Republican Party has been fanning the flames of hate for decades.
Now the EPA, led by Scott Pruitt with his decidedly unscientific views on the environment, has delayed passing the Clean Water Rule. His motivation appears to be to allow more pollution while simultaneously not protecting people’s essential drinking water. In a statement, Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said:
“EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rush to delay the Clean Water Rule will allow more pollution, threatening safe, clean drinking water in the Midwest. We can’t afford to go backwards when it comes to reducing pollution of our community rivers, lakes and streams.”
Helping people help themselves
The issue of unsafe drinking water is worse in rural communities that don’t have the finances to improve their failing systems, and also because their small populations have little recourse to complain. A study from 2015 showed that 5,000 U.S. drinking water systems have multiple health code violations – and more than 50 percent of those systems serve 500 people or less.
A new strategy to help improve this health situation is to absorb the smaller water facilities into larger, better funded ones. This approach has been experimented with in California. But as a resident of that state, and Los Angeles in particular, I can say that I’ve still had cloudy, disinfectant smelling water from my faucet that I’m not about to risk drinking.
Health violations actually skyrocketed in rural areas in the 2000s after the EPA revised its stance on disinfectants, where the standard practice had always been to use chlorine and other disinfectants to remove pathogens from drinking water. However, it was revealed that the EPA signed-and-approved process actually led to chemicals reacting with organic matter to produce new harmful compounds. The EPA may have revoked its earlier misguided practice, but now it has no way of covering up the problems in the country’s water supply system.
The regular health violations reveal a deeper systemic problem with water utilities in the U.S. Some 16 million cases of acute gastroenteritis occur each year due to inadequate community water systems. The most recent report on U.S drinking water safety, published in February, suggests that the figures for how many people are exposed to unsafe drinking water may actually be double the initial estimates – up to 45 million, or closer to 9 percent of the population.
Ultimately, the only way to reduce people’s amount of exposure to unsafe drinking water is to combine investment in infrastructure with enforcement of regulations. This means government efforts with the backing of local communities. Unfortunately, as the EPA sees its funding stripped by the Trump administration, and its leader proves unwilling to make any effort to help the environment, that scenario is less and less likely to happen. Which begs the question: How bad does the situation, and our people’s health, have to get before we finally decide to act?