by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Technology Intern
In the small town of O’Brien, Texas, residents drank water that violated drinking water quality standards for months before one resident found out and altered his community. Facing financial stress, the city had switched from a treated reservoir to a groundwater source with violatingly high levels of nitrates to provide drinking water for its residents.
Nitrate pollution usually comes from fertilizers, as in agricultural towns like O’Brien, and can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” disease in infants. Nitrate levels in O’Brien schools were found to be 40% above EPA standards. Upon hearing the news, many residents switched to drinking bottled water or purchased individual water filters, but not all were financially able to.
O’Brien is just one example of residents suffering from public water quality violations, but they are not alone. In fact, millions of Americans consume unsafe public drinking water everyday.
Is US Drinking Water Safe?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US has “one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world”. Recent reports, however, have challenged that statement. In March, EPA’s Administrator Andrew Wheeler assured that 92% of public water in the US meets EPA standards.
Given that 90% of Americans, or 300 million people, rely on drinking water from a public source, the 8% that doesn’t currently meet EPA standards indicates that over 26 million Americans consume unsafe water daily. Additionally, while the EPA sets legal limits for over 90 drinking water contaminants, ensuring that these limits are not breached is dependent on proper funding and oversight. Based on the 22% decrease between 2009 and 2014 in funding for public water distribution by state and local governments nationwide, it is possible that more than 8% of the nation’s water is unsafe.
While the CDC has determined that there is no safe blood level of lead for children, the EPA lead rule determines action must be taken if 10% or more of taps sampled have a lead level of 15 ppb or greater. Recently, this rule has come under scrutiny as many companies find ways around the regulation, by selectively testing certain taps, “pre-flushing” or sampling slowly to reduce samples’ lead concentrations.
Additionally, in 2016, CNN found 5,300 US water systems, serving more than 18 million people, to be in violation of this rule. When the lead rule was first implemented by EPA in 1991, 10 million lead lines served public water nationwide. While this number has decreased to 6.1 million lead lines, there are still 15-22 million Americans served by lead lines, predominantly in the Midwest.
Of the 10,000 public systems violating EPA drinking water standards in 2015, 72% of them were bacteria violations. Bacterial drinking water illness outbreaks have been rising since 2000, with 42 outbreaks between 2013-2014, causing over 1,000 cases of illness. Such violations often occur from contamination of water supplies by animal manure from agricultural operations or sewage, causing 16 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness annually.
Violations of water quality are not experienced equally across the nation, and instead they disparately impact communities of color and low socioeconomic status. Research has determined that the prevalence of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural powerhouse, is significantly higher in Latinx and low-income communities. After the well-publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan, children residing in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods were found to have greater elevation of blood lead levels when compared to their peers.