Millions don’t have access to clean water.
Have you ever turned on the tap and watched brown, sludgy water coming out of the faucet? The residents of Flint, Michigan, faced the ordeal back in 2014 when lead from corroded, aging water pipes leaked into the drinking supply. It got a lot of media attention, but it’s far from being a one-off case.
Many communities in the U.S. are facing such water crises—their supplies are contaminated with arsenic, lead, and chemicals. In fact, a study published in 2018 revealed that from 1982-2015, 9-45 million people got water from a source that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. The lack of access to clean water disproportionately affects minorities and lower-income groups. These are the people who are unable to keep the water running in their homes when the bills go up and they can’t afford to buy bottles of water when the tap runs dry.
INSIDER TIPIf you notice a fishy smell or metallic taste from tap water, get it tested by a state-certified laboratory and file a complaint with your public water system company.
Top Picks for You
Last month, Benton Harbor declared a state of emergency because of lead-contaminated water. The city, which has a predominantly Black population of 10,000, has been facing a water crisis since 2018 and last month, the residents were advised to use bottled water to drink, cook, and brush their teeth. Tap water can be used to shower and flush toilets, but can’t be ingested. High levels of lead in water can cause behavioral problems, decreased kidney function, and slowed growth in children and the EPA says no amount of lead is safe.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has been providing free cases of bottled water to residents since September 30. The city is working to replace its lead service pipes—6,000 of them—in the next 18 months and the cost of the project is $30 million.
The same problem also exists in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which has been using chemicals to bring down toxic lead levels in its water. It is also on track for removing all lead service lines by 2026.
Additionally, around 6-10 million homes in the U.S. have lead service lines and it will cost $60 billion to replace all of them. President Biden has promised to eliminate all lead pipes installed in the country, but it could be years before it happens.
Central Valley produces one-fourth of the nation’s food, but the fertilizers and pesticides used on farms have seeped into the aquifers and polluted the groundwater.
In East Osori, a predominantly Latino community in California, the nitrate levels exceed the safe limit set by the EPA. These nitrates cause an array of illnesses, such as breathing difficulty, nausea, dizziness, weakness, and convulsions. Infants and pregnant women are most impacted. High levels of nitrates and cancer-causing hexavalent chromium have also made the water in Tooleville undrinkable. This Latino community in Tulare County has fewer than 400 residents and they have depended on bottled water for decades.
WHERE: New Jersey
In 2016, high levels of lead were discovered in Newark’s schools. In 2018, the toxics were three times the allowed limit. The city started distributing water filters and bottled water to its residents and raced to replace its lead service lines. In an impressive feat, it has removed more than 18,000 lead service lines in the city, but people are still wary of drinking from the tap.
This rural coal town is known for its polluted drinking water. In 2000, a coal company spilled 300 million gallons of coal slurry into its waterways and contaminated the system with arsenic and mercury. Two decades later, the problem with water supply continues with outages and boil water advisories. Leaks in pipes cause bacteria to enter the system and the residents often get brown water in their taps. The Guardian reported that the water smells of chlorine and tastes bad, and residents refuse to drink it due to mistrust in the system even when the county says it’s safe for consumption.
This town in Texas has high levels of radium in its water. Radium occurs naturally in the ground and seeps into the water, but it’s carcinogenic and increases the risk of cancer. The city is currently working to fix its water supply by upgrading its water treatment system.
WHERE: South Carolina
Residents of Florence are often advised to boil water before drinking it due to possible bacterial contamination. The town suffers from a loss of pressure and cut-offs, which can lead to bacteria entering the supply. The water from the faucets stinks, a resident told NBC earlier this year.
In another part of South Carolina, residents noticed rust-colored water from their taps that the authorities confirmed was safe to use. It was later reported that in Denmark, South Carolina, a substance called HaloSan—which is not approved by the EPA—was being added to water. The chemical was used by the state for 10 years (from 2008 to 2018) until federal authorities stopped its use.
WHERE: North Carolina
A study revealed that Brunswick County has the highest levels of forever chemicals (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS) in its tap waters. PFAS are a group of 5,000 compounds that are found in nearly every American because their use is prevalent—in non-stick pans, food packaging, and firefighting foam and gear. They also cause many health problems including liver damage, infertility, and cancer.
Cape Fear River supplies water to millions of people in North Carolina, including Wilmington, Greensboro, and Pittsboro. Since the 1980s, chemical company Chemours has discharged its toxic waste in the river from its plant in Fayetteville. In 2019, the company was fined $13 million and ordered to clean up. However, as recently as this year, it was fined half a million more for violations of GenX air emissions and failing to install water treatment systems.