by Linda Krajčovičová
Although access to drinking water is virtually unlimited for the majority of people, a significant part of the world’s population is not so lucky. The misleading consensus that the lack of safe drinking water is exclusively the problem of developing countries has been present in western societies for many years, and it can be argued that such conviction has made these societies quite careless and negligent. This article focuses on one of the most progressive countries of the world – the United States of America, and shows examples of the problems that such an attitude can lead to.
Drinking Water in the US
In recent years, fresh water has become a relatively frequent topic in the United States for multiple reasons. The first one is related to a much bigger and global problem the world is facing – climate change – which is predicted to negatively influence rain patterns and temperatures throughout the country. In reality, a lot of parts of the States are expected to lose as much as a third of their water supplies which will be only worsened by the fact that the country’s population is still growing, and hence the interest in water supply is rising as well. The other issue that has been on the front burner is concerned with the quality of drinking water in American cities, many of which had to face and overcome numerous scandals. These, infamous for the way people’s health has been affected, still have an impact on the citizens, even years later.
While it would be understandable for people whose tap water is actually harmful to look for alternatives, research shows that lots of those who do not have this problem are also hesitant to drink tap water.
A public survey from June 2020 published by the American Water Works Association, Public Perceptions of Tap Water, analyzed opinions of more than two thousand Americans, coming from various backgrounds and representing different social groups, concerning the tap water they have in their homes. Only 81% of the respondents concluded that they consider their water to be “safe”, when perhaps a higher number would be expected in, arguably, the most prosperous nation of the world. Equally surprising, as many as 24% of the people asked answered that they “never” drink their tap water. These numbers have been supported by other studies and can be perceived as a consequence of the already mentioned scandals. While it would be understandable for people whose tap water is actually harmful to look for alternatives, research shows that lots of those who do not have this problem are also hesitant to drink tap water. As a result, the most popular drink Americans prefer to buy is one not many people would guess: bottled water. When asked about their decision to favor bottled water over tap water in the AWWA survey the population’s sample listed “convenience” as the primary argument for their choice. Being the country’s “new favorite beverage” in early 2017, demand for bottled water, however, does not come without its consequences. Higher price than regular tap water as well as the impact of plastic bottles on the environment are just additional reasons why it is crucial for the US officials to enable access to safe drinking water to all its citizens.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit organization advocating cleaner environment, characterizes water pollution as the existence of “harmful substances–often chemicals or microorganisms–[that] contaminate a stream, river, lake, ocean, aquifer, or other body of water, degrading water quality and rendering it toxic to humans or the environment”. It lists several significant contributors to water pollution, such as agriculture, wastewater, and oil. To prevent the spread of any of the contaminants, the US government introduced the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, which classifies approximately one hundred of them. The Act is, to this day, the most important regulation concerning the quality of drinking water in the States. Despite the Act’s status, NRDC has been criticizing its “widespread violations and inadequate enforcement” across the country for some time now and is very vocal about the necessary changes needed to improve the situation around tap water. The organization emphasizes the number of people affected by the water’s quality, claiming that almost “77 million people were served by more than 18,000 of these [community water] systems with violations in 2015”, some of which directly impacted many people’s well-being.
One of the most discussed substances that have been polluting American tap water are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”. Many of these, also known as PFAS (polyfluroalkyl and perfluroalkyl substances), have been used in the US for approximately seventy years, and are easily detected in various things people come into contact with daily, ranging from food to household products to living organisms. They have acquired their name due to their exceptional structure that “keeps them from breaking down under typical environmental conditions”, enabling them to stay a part of the ecosystem for many years. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, states that these substances “can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans”, for example affecting “the immune system” or causing cancer. Although the Agency claims that the occurrence of PFAS in drinking water is primarily connected to regions “with a specific facility” that in some way works with these chemicals, a study conducted by David Q. Andrews and Olga V. Naidenko from 2020 presents different data. Even though their research was limited by insufficient information on all PFAS that can be found, they assert that more than 200 million Americans have access to drinking water that has been contaminated by these chemicals. According to Andrews and Naidenko, ongoing global use of these chemicals worldwide could be a drawback to their elimination, but what would undeniably help is more widespread and stricter water testing across the country.
Moreover, there is another issue concerning the way tap water is inadequately addressed. An overwhelming 60% of the AWWA survey’s respondents claim they have not had “any recent communication from [their] water utility”, proposing that, in reality, many Americans do not have any precise information about the quality of their water or about the potential harmful levels of chemicals that it could contain.
Flint Water Crisis
PFAS comprise just one problem American tap water has faced in recent years. Notably, it was a different chemical which caused the biggest American water crisis in the twenty-first century – lead.
Flint, Michigan, prospered in the second half of the twentieth century, namely because of the automobile industry. It has regressed in the 21st century and a few years ago became infamous for the quality of its drinking water and its effects on the city’s inhabitants. The beginning of the crisis can be traced back to 2011, when Michigan took over Flint’s finances because of the city’s improper money handling. As a part of the money-saving plan, Flint replaced its water supply from Detroit with water from the Flint River. Introduced only as a momentary resolution, the city’s principal goal was to construct a new pipeline to deliver water from Lake Huron. Starting in 2014, the decision to use the Flint River as the city’s temporary water source proved to be an unfortunate one just months afterwards, when the citizens of Flint started to notice differences in the qualities of their tap water. Their initial complaints were denied and suppressed by the city’s authorities, but research from the next year revealed the existence of high lead levels in the water systems. These were a consequence of the city’s inability to treat the Flint River, resulting in lead leaching into thousands of homes. Generally, elevated lead levels may have a major impact on adults’ health, affecting internal organs such as the heart, kidneys and reproductive organs, as well as causing high “blood pressure”. Besides these, even more health problems stemming from the contaminated water arose in the city, for instance Legionnaires’ disease (a severe form of pneumonia), resulting in multiple deaths, as well as “elevated levels of total trihalomethanes…cancer-causing chemicals”. All these contaminants did not only affect Flint’s adult population, but also the health of its youngest residents. A study by Mona Hanna-Attisha concluded that elevated blood lead levels in minors rose following the water source change from 2014. EPA states that even a small amount of lead in children’s blood easily influences their behavior and can cause hearing problems or anemia. In more severe cases, lead exposure can result in death.
Notably, it was a different chemical which caused the biggest American water crisis in the twenty-first century – lead.
The city officials’ refusal to admit the tap water has been polluted was an unacceptable conclusion for Flint’s residents, and compelled them to bring charges against it. In the end, the city of Flint was forced to ensure “door-to-door delivery of bottled water to every home without a properly installed and maintained faucet filter”, followed by the court’s order to replace thousands of lead pipes that had been originally used.
Although the distribution of bottled water has stopped in 2018, the situation in Flint has been slowly getting better and reports from earlier this year concluded that at least 9,900 of the city’s lead pipelines have been replaced, leaving just a few more hundreds to be checked. The city has also promised additional changes in the future, ranging from renovating and expanding its water reservoirs to building a backup water source.
Although Flint has become the most known water crisis in the United States, it is not the only city which has been affected by poor quality tap water. Just a few years after the Flint incident, another city followed, this time in the state of New Jersey – Newark. Again, it was lead pipelines that caused the contamination of the city’s tap water, resulting in much higher levels than is the limit set by the government. Much like Flint, Newark was also brought to court, resulting in an order for “the city to replace all lead service lines free of charge to residents”.
Whether or not the race of both cities’ citizens has played a role in the way the officials addressed and handled the water crises is difficult to say, but it definitely encourages even further conversation about the quality of the US’s tap water.
Apart from a water crisis caused by lead, both of these cities also share another similarity –their residents–which comprise mainly low-income, predominantly black communities. Whether or not the race of both cities’ citizens has played a role in the way the officials addressed and handled the water crises is difficult to say, but it definitely encourages even further conversation about the quality of the US’s tap water.
The cities of Flint and Newark have undeniably set an example for other parts of the United States to try to prevent anything similar from happening in the future. President Biden and his government made clean drinking water one of their priorities, “proposing a total of $111 billion dollars in clean water and drinking water investments”. Although this proposal is only a draft and no specific regulations have been established, it is an important step forward. On March 31, 2021, the president tweeted that “It’s long past time” for the country to improve the quality of their water, showing dedication to and care about this cause. The proposal suggests investing billions of dollar to “upgrading and modernizing America’s wastewater, stormwater and drinking water system”, as well as “toward a goal of removing 100 percent of lead service lines across the country”. Another sum of money is planned to “go toward monitoring and remediating PFAS in drinking water”.
Whether or not Biden’s plan will be a success is unknown as of yet, but the country’s past experiences as well as new research findings suggest that clean drinking water will be more and more topical in the future. People’s dissatisfaction with the insufficient information they receive about their tap water could also be another factor that will contribute to further actions individual cities and states, or even the federal government, decide to take in the following years. What is certain, however, is that people’s demand for water will not decrease, and because bottled water is not the ideal replacement of tap water, some changes are unavoidable.