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 Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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