The Water We Drink Has Lead & Chemicals in it. Here’s What to Do About It.

The last few years have highlighted a true crisis in America related to a very basic human need: clean water. From the lead that contaminated Flint’s drinking water to the rural counties of Kentucky experiencing water polluted by disinfectant chemicals, the United States faces the reality of damage brought on by years of ignorance and inaction.

The magnitude of the deadly water crisis appears to be worsening with every story that comes to light. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, found that 25% of Americans drank water from systems in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Even this number severely understates the issue, as it does not account for the 13 million private well systems that operate outside of the purview of the federal government and its safety regulations. Aside from the deadly water itself, many families are in danger of losing access to clean water as the price of water rises to cover the expensive cost of replacing aging infrastructure and anticipating the effects of climate change.

States with Water Concerns

Most people will think of Michigan when it comes to a state that really embodies the heart of the water crisis. In many ways, that is true; water can be a sore subject for many residents. Flint, Michigan’s diversion of water into lead service lines exposed the city’s residents to high levels of lead in the water and sparked national outrage in 2014. In 2017, several residents of Plainfield Township, Michigan instigated lawsuits against a company that dumped toxic sludge that contaminated water. The City of Detroit faces challenges of water affordability as 50,000 households have lost water services since 2014 when they were unable to pay the bills. And most recently, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality accepted Nestlé’s request to pump 400 gallons of water per minute from a well in the Great Lakes Basin, a large increase from the 250 gallons per minute it was extracting.

Yet, Michigan is not alone in these problems. Chicago, Illinois is under fire for high levels of toxic lead in the drinking water. The Chicago Tribune did an analysis sampling homes around the city and found that 3 in 10 had lead concentrations that were higher than the recommended levels by the Food and Drug Administration in bottled water. Back in March 2017, East Chicago in Indiana was warned by the EPA that the 29,000 residents may have been exposed to drinking water with lead contamination. This was discovered upon investigation of contaminated soil outside a former factory site.

Even parts of rural America are facing the difficulties of access to healthy drinking water. Unknowingly to many, most health-based violations of drinking water standards and regulations occur in smaller towns and cities outside of larger urban areas. These challenges are popping up from Appalachian Kentucky to the border of Texas. According to a piece in the New Republic, “of the 5,000 drinking-water violations in 2015, more than 50 percent were systems that serve 500 people or fewer”. This really limits the ability for the affected residents to protest and draw attention to the real issues they are facing.

No Action

Local officials in the cases above and in other instances around the country are not the quickest to act on reports and information of contamination. In Flint Michigan, even after suspicions and complaints of contamination were being reassured of the water’s safety all while the government employees were getting purified water brought in for drinking.

In the case of Chicago, the mayor has released a plan to replace several miles of the city’s aging water infrastructure. However, this plan only included main lines and leaves lead service lines to the homeowners.

Generally, much of the inaction is the result of a large lack of funding. On the federal government side, the EPA suffers from a lack of funding to research contaminants – what they are, how to take care of them, and what the actual health effects are. Without funds to do this, no tougher laws can be put into place that restrict contaminants and protect consumers. On the other hand, local and state governments suffer from a lack of funds that makes replacing infrastructure impossible without additional taxpayer burden. Because of this, inaction is the way of dealing with the problem.

Moving Forward

When the local, state, and federal governments have turned their backs on this issue time and time again, the future looks bleak. But people can do their best to protect themselves and their families with testing and prevention efforts with limited means. For households that can afford it, filtration systems can be installed, but problems with water tend to disproportionately affect low income and minority neighborhoods. In these cases, it is important to be informed by reading local water reports, knowing and understanding the city’s pipes, and filtering the drinking water with at-home kits like First Alert, Apec or Berkey. If possible, filtering the water coming from the shower head is also a good option. Finally, for those who have lead pipes, simply letting them run will flush out the liquid that’s been sitting in them.

While years of neglect have led many communities to this bad place, there are people and organizations trying to correct the problem, especially on a local level. One example is the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center. MASSTC runs tests, researches, and develops products to remove dangerous contaminants from wastewater. Their biggest achievement is the installation of a nitrogen sensor in wastewater treatment systems, leading to a better quality of water in the area. Conventional septic systems are not designed to remove nitrogen, which can lead to problems like nitrogen loading to waterways. This issue is especially important to coastal communities, where excess nitrogen causes toxic algal blooms leading to beach closures and degrades water resources. 

In Padre Dam, CA, the recently completed construction of an advanced water purification facility aimed to reclaim treated wastewater and use it to recharge drinking water aquifers, providing between 20 and 25 percent of the area’s current drinking water demands. The program created a new, sustainable and drought proof drinking water supply for the county, and reduced dependence on imported water. In March 2018, Padre Dam Municipal Water District received the Recycled Water Community Outreach / Public Education Program of the Year award, for their efforts towards their local community.

Another project worth noting is being done in Kansas City, where a phone application gives live water quality data. The real-time monitoring network provides inhabitants real-time information about the water they’re about to drink. How was that possible? The United States Geological Survey pioneered an innovative approach for estimating bacteria concentrations based on basic water quality parameters. Residents are then able to make decisions about playing or using the water in surrounding areas.

These are just a few examples of communities that have taken note of issues and decided to push back in their own way. With funds and dedicated work on a local level, water problems can actually be resolved, slowly but surely, one city at a time.

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