In 2014, the local government of Flint, Michigan voted to switch the city’s water source from the Detroit water system — which drew its water from Lake Huron — to drawing from the Flint River. This switch was supposed to be temporary and save the city millions of dollars. But in just a few months, residents began to claim that their water looked and tasted strange. Many developed health problems. It was discovered that the untreated water had been corroding the pipes in peoples’ homes, allowing dangerous levels of lead to seep into the water. By the time the government had finally acknowledged the problem and switched the water back, 12 people were dead. And the damage to many homes was already done. The people of Flint still cannot safely drink the water coming from their taps.
A growing problem
For the rest of the country it would be comforting to believe that this was an isolated incident. But studies show that America’s broken water infrastructure system puts people all over the country at risk for consuming contaminated drinking water. In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act that requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish and enforce standards for all sources of public drinking water. However due to loopholes in the law, the limited list of contaminants identified by the EPA and the fact that the EPA has not been able to establish a new standard in 25 years, Americans are more at risk than they may realize.
A hidden contaminant
A report in June of 2017 found that 15 million Americans in 27 states had their drinking water contaminated with chemicals known as perfluorochemicals (PFCs) which are commonly found in nonstick cookware. These chemicals have been linked to numerous health problems such as cancer, thyroid disease and weakened immune systems. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University found that even in small concentrations, these chemicals pose a threat to public health. “Americans should be outraged,” EWG senior scientist David Andrews Ph.D. said in a press release. PFCs are not yet included in the EPA’s list of contaminants.
Americans who receive their drinking water from public sources can request a copy of their Consumer Confidence Report. However, because of the frighteningly outdated water infrastructure, this may not provide concerned citizens with the full story.
Contaminants are not the only thing posing a risk to Americans’ drinking water. Many American homes, like those in Flint, have lead pipes that are up to a century old which can leak lead into drinking water. Meanwhile, the technology used to treat water at water-plants can be just as ancient. The EPA estimates that it will cost close to $400 billion to upgrade water infrastructure. It’s a steep price but without major infrastructure changes, all Americans could be at risk.