Flint Water Plant sign

The Safety of Water and the Impact on Health in U.S.

When the city of Flint, Michigan made headlines in 2015 for its lead-contaminated water, clean water became a hot-button issue.  Before then, most Americans took the safety and availability of water for granted, thinking these problems only happened in third world countries.

However, even though the United States has one of the highest quality of public drinking water, the future of that system is not a given.  And, the problems in our water system lie both above and below ground level.

Above ground, the effects of a warming planet are apparent.  For example, major droughts have engulfed many areas of the country, especially in parts of the Southwest and the central plains.  Scientists say these droughts will continue, and one season of plentiful rain – like the most recent wet winter in California – doesn’t solve this ongoing problem.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “When drought affects a community, its devastating consequences can include increased risk to human health, decreased water quality, and decreased food production. These effects can be far-reaching, complex, and costly.”

Shannyn Snyder, department of global and community health, George Mason University, wrote on the website, The Water Project, “It seems impossible that a powerful river, like the Colorado River, is beginning to run dry in places. It seems farfetched that a huge body of water like Lake Mead in Arizona might become obsolete, but these and other dramatic changes are facing the United States.”

“Water scarcity is a global concern, and that means there’s even a problem in our own backyard,” Snyder added.

Below ground is a different set of problems, but equally challenging.

Most notable is an aging water infrastructure that has been badly neglected.  Cast iron water pipes – some dating to the 1880s – need to be replaced in communities throughout the nation.  According to EPA, the cost of replacing these old pipes and bringing treatment plants up to date could cost upwards of $384 billion.

Water main failures and burst pipes are also an issue.  The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates about 240,000 water pipe failures of varying degree occur annually.  Usually, these broken pipes are patched instead of completely replaced.

“It’s a huge problem nationwide,” said Erik Olson, director of the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “A lot of [the water infrastructure is] now 100 years old or more. We haven’t been taking care of it.”

In fact, antiquated water pipes were at the heart of the disaster in Flint, Michigan.

In 2014, to save money, the city changed water suppliers.  Not long after, residents began complaining about the water quality, but city officials denied there was a problem.  Yet, there was a problem, and it was serious.  The new source of water, the Flint River, was stirring up corrosion in the fragile pipes thereby causing them to leach lead and other contaminants into the public water system.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined lead is harmful to health, even at low levels.  Additionally, lead is persistent and can bioaccumulate in the human body over time.  Lead is of special concern for children.  In worst case scenarios, lead can cause both behavioral and neurological problems in kids.

To learn more about the Flint calamity, its timeline and the outcome, listen to NPR’s radio broadcast “Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-By-Step Look at the Makings of a Crisis.”

What happened in Flint was a severe case, but it isn’t the only community battling lead in their water.  Many schools, for example, have found high levels of lead in tap water in its schools.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, told television reporters that Newark public schools are a “mini-Flint,” with tests revealing that at least 30 schools in the city show lead contaminated water samples.

While lead has grabbed most of the headlines, there are dozens of other substances that can pollute water, such as the highly toxic chemical perchlorate and atrazine, which is the most detected pesticide found in U.S. waters.

The EPA provides a comprehensive list of both man-made and natural sources of water contamination on its website.

The future of water is complicated.  The federal government has demonstrated a tepid interest in a complete overhaul of the nation’s water systems.  Part of this is because managing, delivering and paying for water mostly happen at the local level.  Communities, especially small and rural, often lack the funds to conduct a massive renovation of the system.

Most experts agree the days of cheap water are coming to an end.  To finance these badly-needed improvements, consumers will pay higher prices.  They will also be required to conserve much more water than they have done in the past.

For their part, water providers will be forced to look at new alternatives for reusing water, and that will carry a high price tag as well.

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