21 Million Americans Are Relying on Unsafe Drinking Water, Here's What We Can Do About It
Since the Flint drinking water crisis erupted five years ago, Americans have realized that many cities and towns struggle to ensure safe water. Currently residents of Newark, New Jersey are drinking bottled water after the city realized lead filters it handed out had failed.
While most water systems in the U.S. provide reliable, high-quality drinking water, our research has shown that as of a few years ago, 21 million people in the U.S. relied on water from utilities with health violations. Why? Infrastructures are aging, environmental hazards are evolving and cities lack the funds to make fixes.
No amount of lead in the body is safe, and children under age five are especially at risk. Lead poisoning can damage the central nervous system, reduce IQ, delay growth and cause behavior and learning problems. Nearly half a million children in the U.S. have elevated blood lead levels. Exposure comes primarily from lead paint, but lead in drinking water also contributes.
Our research group studies long-term trends in drinking-water quality and what factors cause unsafe water. Our studies have shown that this public health crisis can be corrected through better enforcement, stricter sampling protocols, revised federal regulations and more funding for state agencies.
Lead Contamination in Water Is Widespread
Since it began regulating lead in 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency has reported nearly 7,000 violations of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which sets maximum levels of these metals in drinking water. Of these violations, 4,110 occurred in community water systems, which serve people year-round. Another 2,639 were recorded in noncommunity water systems that serve places like schools. The violations have fluctuated over two decades, showing no clear downward trend.
Between 2014 and 2018 the EPA reported 740 violations of the Lead and Copper Rule at community water systems. Montgomery and Harris counties in Texas had the highest number of violations. Several counties in the Northeast violated the rule multiple times, including Baltimore and Worcester, Massachusetts.
Although violations in cities are rare, six communities with populations of 100,000 people or more had water with too much lead and copper, including Portland, Oregon; Providence, Rhode Island; and systems in northern New Jersey, Mississippi and Wisconsin.
Very high lead levels tend to appear in very small communities. Three towns with fewer than 3,000 people — two in Michigan and one in Utah — experienced levels over 100 times the regulatory limit.
Lead Accumulates as Water Travels Through Pipes
At treatment plants, lead levels often are acceptable – but then they rise as water flows through service lines. Acidic water can corrode lead pipes and carry lead that leaches from them to the tap. Utilities can't fully control the problem because property owners usually own the pipes that connect homes to the water mains.
Until the 1950s, lead pipes to houses were common. By 1986 they were banned, but old lead pipes remain – and are corroding – across the country, especially in the Northeast, Midwest and older urban areas.
Nearly one-third of water systems in the U.S. report that at least some of their service lines contain lead. The exact number of lead service lines is estimated at 7 to 11 million — more than 50,000 miles of lead pipes. This would mean that service lines to the homes of about 15 to 22 million people, or 7 percent of those served by a community water system, could contain lead.
More than one in five utilities do not know whether lead service lines exist for the homes they serve. Addressing this problem will require the federal government to update regulations, while states improve monitoring and enforcement. The EPA does not require lead testing in schools, and sampling procedures at community water systems can be inconsistent.
Lead is one of the few water contaminants that utilities are required to measure at a customer's home, and utilities do not always follow EPA sampling procedures in practice. A violation is incurred only if 10 percent or more of samples have concentrations above the action level for lead, which is 15 parts per billion. Some utilities take many more samples than required and discard those with high lead levels, a 2016 investigation found.
Another hurdle is reduced funding for enforcement activities. State funding declined by 26 percent from 2001 to 2011, while workloads have increased due to new rules.
Lead and Copper Sampling youtu.be
Controlling Corrosion and Replacing Pipes
Water system managers must inform the public when they find elevated lead levels. They may need to reduce pipe corrosion or replace service lines made of lead.
Water treatments to adjust pH and lessen corrosion can be effective in reducing exposure to lead. They are required in cities of more than 50,000 and in smaller systems with violations. Flint's system lacked proper corrosion control, which would have cost only about $100 per day.
Replacing lead pipes nationwide, which would permanently solve the corrosion problem, would cost $16 billion to $80 billion. Utilities that cannot reduce lead levels through corrosion control are legally required to replace pipes at a rate of 7 percent yearly. However, they only have to pay for replacing pipes they own. Many homeowners decline to pay for their portion, which can cost between $1,000 and $12,000.
Partial replacements can worsen conditions by disrupting pipelines and dislodging lead. Nonetheless, some cities have launched replacement programs. Others, including Detroit, Denver and Newark, have taken steps to identify and inventory lead pipes in their service areas.
Revised federal and state guidelines could limit oversampling by utilities and improve water testing in people's houses. New regulations could prohibit the practice of "pre-flushing," or running water for several minutes before drawing a sample, which some engineers use to clear lead from pipes prior to testing. Another strategy would be for regional EPA offices to conduct random sampling of tap water quality.
The EPA currently is considering long-term revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule. In our view, an updated rule should require corrosion control, identification and replacement of lead lines, specific sampling procedures and better public education.
We believe that lead contamination can be eliminated through better enforcement, more funding for state agencies, stricter sampling and proactive efforts to control corrosion. These actions will pay off by improving children's health nationwide.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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