When Malini Ranganathan, PhD, an associate professor at American University and interim faculty director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, conducted research in Exeter, a flourishing agriculture town in California’s Central Valley, she didn’t expect to see similar conditions to what she’d witnessed in India’s low-income housing areas. Residents in one of the world’s richest states were depending on bore water and water tankers to drink because tap water was unsafe. When her research later brought her to Flint, Michigan, homeowners reported that they felt sick after drinking tap water.
Dishearteningly, what Dr. Ranganathan witnessed in the 2010s persists to this day. According to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), drinking water must meet specific health standards, including maximum acceptable levels of naturally occurring and man-made contaminants, before it can be deemed safe. Yet between 2016 and 2019, almost 45 million Americans relied on drinking water that violated these health standards. More recently, 15 million Texans were left with unsafe drinking water after a massive winter storm disrupted an underprepared power grid and water supply.
In wellness circles, the ability to drink the recommended eight glasses of water per day is often taken for granted. But unsafe drinking water is a critical issue for millions of Americans, particularly for low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. And without water—which is the basis of all life on Earth—it’s impossible to be well.
How water becomes undrinkable
In the United States, water becomes undrinkable for a number of reasons, says Stephanie Malin, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and the co-founder of CSU’s Center for Environmental Justice. First of all, many parts of the U.S.—including major cities like Philadelphia—rely on water systems that date back to the 1930s-1950s. (The estimated usefulness lifespan of any water system infrastructure is 75 to 100 years.) Aging and poorly managed water infrastructure predisposes contamination by lead because water runs through corroded service lines, Dr. Malin says. Additionally, agricultural run-offs from factory farming can introduce nitrate and phosphate (naturally-occurring chemical compounds that can be unsafe for humans at high levels) into the water supply, and legacies of industrial pollution and military contamination of groundwater contribute to the ingestion of chemicals like chromium, arsenic, mercury, and uranium.
Inadequate wastewater management systems often co-occur with unsafe drinking water, says Catherine Coleman-Flowers, rural development manager at Equal Justice Initiative, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, and author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. (She is also a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.) Failing and inadequately constructed wastewater treatment systems can leak wastewater, and with it harmful bacteria like Giardia and E.Coli, into drinking water sources and pipes.
Compounding the problem is the fact that decades of chronic underfunding from the federal government to improve public water infrastructure means local and state governments are expected to cover most of this cost from their own more limited budgets. This ends up contributing to further inequities, helping wealthier cities repair their infrastructure while leaving poorer cities and towns with a decaying system. In the case of Flint, Michigan, for example, Dr. Ranganathan says that the “white flight” starting in the 1960s (where more affluent white residents left cities and moved to suburbs away from incoming Black residents) contributed to the loss of tax revenue over time—which further affected the city’s budget.
“The pressure then becomes to privatize these systems, enter into private-public partnerships, or hand over public management of these entities to private firms,” says Dr. Malin. “This often has negative and environmentally unjust effects on water quality, water costs, and the safety and wages for water systems workers.”
Contamination of drinking water has varying health implications, including birth deformities and certain cancers, says Dr. Ranganathan. Bacterial contamination can result in diarrhea or dysentery. In infants, nitrates inhibit blood oxygen flow, which can cause blue baby syndrome, and lead is unsafe at any level in the blood in children. “Even at low levels of lead, you start seeing Attention Deficit syndrome, loss in IQ, and poor achievement on IQ tests,” says Dr. Ranganathan. Adults exposed to lead, meanwhile, can experience reproductive issues, kidney problems, and increased blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.
Who is most affected by unsafe drinking water?
A 2019 report from the National Resources Defense Council found that the rate of violations of the SDWA was higher among communities of color, low-income communities, areas with more non-native English speakers, areas with more people living under crowded housing conditions, and areas with more people with sparse access to transportation.
“Different areas of the country are shaped by racial histories that help explain why water inequality is a widespread problem, whether that history has to do with settler colonialism, reservations built for Indigenous groups, plantation slavery and segregation, or immigration,” says Dr. Ranganathan. Coleman-Flowers agrees, saying that inadequate wastewater treatment is a perfect example of these racial inequities at work. “You tend to see sanitation issues in marginalized communities, communities of color, poorer communities, and in rural communities,” she says. “A lot of it is [because of] structural racism where people never had access to adequate wastewater infrastructure in the first place.”
Native American communities, especially the Navajo Nation in Arizona, do not receive adequate investment in their public water infrastructure, says Dr. Malin. A third of households in the Navajo Nation still lack access to running or potable water. Many members of this community are forced to use unsafe drinking water, including water contaminated by uranium during military mining on Navajo land in the 1940s.
Similarly, Southern states across the Black Belt region that were subjected to plantation slavery continue to experience intergenerational poverty and disenfranchisement and do not see equitable access to safe water and sanitation services, adds Dr. Ranganathan. Areas in the Rust Belt in the Midwest, such as Flint and Detroit, live with aging service lines and the consequences of high-level fiscal decisions to switch to lower quality water.
“Folks in the scholarly field often talk about how water is power, so those without water typically lack political and economic power,” says Dr. Ranganathan.
Cleaning up our act
So, what is being done to rectify drinking water insecurity and inequality? Coleman-Flowers observes that several senators and some within the House of Representatives have been introducing legislation to address wastewater issues. Communities and grassroots organizations, such as the Community Water Center in California, are acting to educate the public on poor drinking water quality to help the issue gain more traction, notes Dr. Ranganathan. In certain states and municipalities, she says that local governments are also enacting more progressive policies to advance water equity. For example, in 2019 California established the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which was designed to expand access to safe drinking water by improving and expanding existing infrastructure. (However, the economic impact of the pandemic has reportedly put this program on pause.)
Of course, much remains to be done. Coleman-Flowers says policies need to allow use of alternative systems as well as exploring greener ways to treat wastewater. “Why can’t we treat wastewater to drinking water quality on Earth when we do it in space for people going into outer space? The long-term solution is developing technology that produces clean water coming out of the toilet, and making it available to everyone.” Alongside redirecting government expenditure to build water infrastructure, Dr. Ranganathan urges for resources to be funneled to communities that were underserved by the 20th-century government.
As members of the general public, Dr. Ranganathan says you can support mutual aid initiatives that provide care packages that include water access and donate to organizations working at the forefront of water equity. Finally, making informed voting decisions cannot be overlooked. “It’s important to ensure that the candidates you’re putting in power have a humanitarian perspective and are really invested in communities that have been historically disenfranchised,” says Dr. Ranganathan.
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