Drinking-Water Quality and Environmental Justice

Samuel T. Coleridge coined the phrase ‘‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.’’ This may surprisingly reflect some of our drinking water quality in the U.S. In such a technologically advanced society, it is easy to assume that all of our drinking water is safe and of good quality. Unfortunately, that is not the case. 

We have all heard that our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating and is in need of huge investment for replacement. This certainly applies to our water delivery systems. Lower-income and minority communities in particular, have a greater risk of exposure to pollutants, whether from air or drinking water. There are numerous factors that contribute to this disproportionate risk including proximity to pollution sources (landfills, industry, agriculture, etc.) and related lower land values, greater risk of flooding, failing water supply infrastructure, and lower allocations of funding for public water technologies. In addition, those on private wells often are not testing their water as recommended, nor have the funding for treatment systems. 

The lead crisis in Flint, Mich., is just one example of drinking water contamination situations that have brought attention to the wide-ranging socioeconomic disparities in the risk of drinking water contamination. 

Violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act have been observed to be more prevalent in lower-income communities with higher proportions of Hispanic or African-American residents. For example, a 2010-2014 study showed that 5.6 million people served by a small community water system had average nitrate concentrations above 5 mg/L. Though below the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL of 10 mg/L), the observed levels have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and birth defects. 

Small community water supplies, especially those that supply low-income and minority communities, may have poorer water quality to begin with, due to closer proximity to pollution sources. Further, these water supplies may have reduced technical, managerial, and financial capabilities in managing drinking water, and may lack the needed resources to comply with testing and treatment requirements. Another study showed the percent Hispanic residents and those living in urban areas were associated with an increased likelihood of detection, or exceedance of health guidelines, of several unregulated industrial, inorganic, and disinfection by-product contaminants. 

The situation with private wells and drinking water quality can be even more concerning. Surveys indicate that private wells in the United States often exceed health standards for at least one contaminant. Two studies in the south and Mid-Atlantic have shown that 15-24% of private wells exceeded the 15 parts per billion EPA action level for lead, thereby exposing children to increase risk of behavior, growth, and neurological disorders. One factor in the incidence of contamination of well water quality is that private well supplies are not regulated, as are public supplies, therefore the responsibility for testing and treatment is on the well owner. Unfortunately, most well owners do not test their water as recommended, often not knowing when and what to test. 

Further exasperating this issue is the financial constraints of lower-income and minority populations in affording water testing and installing and maintaining necessary treatment systems.   

Greater attention to enacting policies to address disparities in water supply quality, and educating all consumers is needed to ensure justice for a fundamental health requirement of safe and quality drinking water. 

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