Most Americans consume tap water every day. We use it to brush our teeth, to cook, to clean, to swim in, to shower, to drink. Some of us prefer bottled water or filtered water in favor of drinking straight from a tap, but one way or another, unless you have a private well, we all rely upon our local water supplies in our daily lives. One shouldn’t have to think about the quality and safety of your water when they depend upon it for so many things, but sadly, a large amount of the world’s so-called drinking water is not safe for consumption- even in developed nations like the United States, a new study finds.
According to an investigation from News21 of 680,000 water quality and monitoring violations from the environmental protection agency, as many as 63 million people in the United States (one fifth of the population) could have been exposed to toxic, unsafe water in the last decade. As the study reveals, local water systems have irresponsibly managed the dumping of industrial waste, farm runoff, and the corrosion of water plant and distribution pipes over the last six decades. Many of the local systems found to have violations took more than two years to address to issues, with some only now addressing decades-old violations- plenty of time for harmful toxins to take effect.
So why did so many water suppliers wait so long to respond to violations? For many, money was an issue. Water treatment plants in smaller, lower-income communities often cannot afford the equipment needed to filter out chemicals such as naturally-occurring arsenic, chemicals from factories, and nitrates from farming. Additionally, many of America’s water distribution pipes are in need of repairs or replacement, as they are prone to leaks, lead contamination, breaks, and bacterial growth.
Jeffrey Griffiths, former member of the Drinking Water Committee for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, insists that America needs to be proactive in thinking about the future of its ageing water systems. He states, “We’re in this really stupid situation where, because of neglect of the infrastructure, we’re spending our scarce resources on putting our fingers in the dike, if you will, taking care of these emergencies, but we’re not doing anything to think about the future in terms of what we should be doing.”
America, as a developed nation, is typically not included in discussions about the global water crisis where 1.1 billion people on Earth lack access to clean drinking water and 2.7 billion face water shortages at least one month per year. However, despite easy access to water in most parts of the country, drinking water pollution is a major cause for concern, with 63% of Americans reporting feeling worried “a great deal” about water pollution in a recent Gallup poll.
Small, outdated local water systems are not the only offenders, either. City water systems supply drinking water to millions of people and many of them were in violation of EPA safety standards over the last decade. New York City’s public water system, which supplies water to 8.7 million people, faced violations for unsafe levels of viruses and bacteria in their water supply two times in that period.
The question remains then: what can be done to rectify this alarming issue? It’s going to take more than a quick-fix of outdated pipes to result in long term change. The root of the water contamination problem in America is not the water itself, but the funding needed to maintain and improve services. The EPA’s Office of Water estimates that the upgrades needed to keep the country’s water systems safe will cost $384 billion. In the final months of the Obama administration, they acknowledged the challenges ahead with a report listing aging infrastructure, unregulated contaminant, and financial support for small and poor communities as primary concerns for drinking water quality.