Clean water has long been a crisis in the developing world. The United Nations, The European Union, and other international bodies and nonprofits have worked hard to bring clean drinking water to many of these countries as part of a mission to prevent disease.
More recently, though, it became clear that a surprising number of people in the U.S. don’t have access to clean water either. In fact, as many as 63 million U.S. residents don’t have clean drinking water. How did this happen?
A National Crisis
When the U.S. clean water crisis first came into the spotlight, it was due to a specific issue: contaminated water piped into homes in Flint, Michigan. Once the conversation started, though, it snowballed, and old research on water pollution came to the fore. As far back as 2009, for example, Scientific American reported that the EPA had found over 200 unregulated chemicals in drinking water across 45 states. Additional contaminants included rocket fuel components, industrial solvents, and weed killers.
The media and public responded to this “new” national crisis with surprise, but an analysis of recent legal debates demonstrates we arrived at this state due to human decisions. Not only do reduced clean water regulations allow many industries to dump chemicals into the environment without fear of repercussions, but the EPA has been defanged.
Most recently, the Trump administration nullified the Stream Protection Rule, which means that mining companies don’t have to protect groundwater or clean it up after operation. Referring to it as “another job-killing rule,” President Trump prioritized a dying industry over human health.
Mining isn’t the only cause of poor water quality in the United States. Runoff from agricultural operations can carry animal waste, heavy metals, and chemicals into local waters. Meanwhile, in urban areas, leaking sewers can taint drinking water. And outdated structures, such as old pipes, can leach heavy metals into the water.
Old lead pipes are more likely to be found in low-income communities. And in our aging public school buildings, outdated pipes and fixtures may be exposing children to lead-contaminated water. Unfortunately, nearly half of the states lack lead-testing programs. In Washington, D.C., alone, a recent study found 44 percent of schools had elevated lead levels in at least one water sample.
Military-Linked Water Pollution
In addition to coal mining, heavy industry, agriculture, and outdated infrastructure, the military also takes some of the blame for our national water quality problems.
In a study of pollution on one military base, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, researchers discovered severe drinking water contamination, while on another base, the problem actually rises to the level that the base was designated a cancer cluster. Over a five-year period, 16 children in the small city were diagnosed with leukemia at rates far above the national average. Despite this obvious issue, the military has made no effort to clean up the pollution.
As the U.S. debates its infrastructure investments for the 21st Century, delivering basic health and clean water supplies Americans came to expect during the 20th Century are back on the table. It’s time to get involved in the debate.
Facing the Facts
In order to address our current water crisis, it’s important to recognize several key facts. First, existing environmental regulations are clearly insufficient protection. And it appears that we can’t currently rely on government regulation to ensure that we have clean drinking water.
However, bottled water clearly is not a sustainable solution. It creates enormous amounts of waste, the bottles pile up in landfills, and bottled water often contains microplastics. A growing body of research reveals that microplastics are a threat to human health. And microplastics are increasingly found in tap water as well. Yet for those who face severe water quality issues, bottled water is better than the alternative.
A more sustainable answer to the water crisis starts with prevention and clean-up efforts, particularly communities suffering the most.
Unless we remove existing contaminants from our water supply and prevent more from entering it, Americans will face a crisis on the scale of that seen in developing nations. Right now, we’re already heading that way. Water-borne diseases are on the rise in the United States, including medieval-seeming diseases like cholera and dysentery. This shouldn’t be happening one of the the wealthiest nations in the world, but we’ve brought it on ourselves.
As a government and a society, we need to clean up our act. It’s a simple fact: Without clean water, we have no future.