Soda is bad for our teeth. Alcohol can cause liver and heart damage. Coffee may or may not be good for us, depending on which article you read. But at least we can count on our water to be safe -- or so we thought.
Americans are realizing that water contamination is a serious health and public safety concern, especially after seeing recent stories about lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan. The water crisis in Flint appropriately raised questions about the condition of water in every American community. In fact, we are all left asking how safe our drinking water really is, and the answers aren’t exactly comforting.
At the heart of the issue of contaminated water is the deeper issue of aging infrastructure. While we tend to think of roads and bridges when we hear the word infrastructure, it also applies to the system of pipes that carry water to our homes, in addition to gas and sewer lines. We might even incorrectly assume that our tax dollars are being used to ensure that these systems are being properly maintained. But we are slowly learning that the rate of our infrastructure’s deterioration is outpacing our resources to maintain it.
What Actually Happened in Flint?
Flint, under the orders of an appointed emergency manager, changed the city’s water source to the Flint River to cut costs. However, the water from Flint River contained chemicals that were corrosive, and these corrosive elements caused lead from the city’s pipes to be released into the drinking water.
How Common Are Lead Pipes?
Lead pipes are, unfortunately, very common in the United States. New water lines no longer include lead, but many of our water delivery systems are quite old, and a large number of communities still have pipes that contain lead. Additionally, lead service lines -- the water delivery systems that connect our homes and businesses to water mains -- are still widely used, especially in older buildings.
To make matters worse, the costs of replacing all lead water lines are so great that we chemically treat our water to make it safe instead of installing new lines. Properly testing and treating our drinking water brings about other potentially frightening issues, due to the fact that our government has proven to be slow in identifying which chemicals in our water systems are damaging and which of those chemicals are actually present in our drinking water.
Lead’s Effects on Children
Lead is harmful to everyone, but it is especially harmful to children. Lead has been shown to cause serious developmental problems in children, affecting their ability to learn, speak and process language. It impacts the focus and intelligence of children and can lead to aggressive behavior. The effects of lead poisoning in children can have lifelong consequences. The Environmental Protection Agency now says that even the smallest levels of lead in the blood are unsafe.
Lead could also be dangerous to pregnant women, causing miscarriages and damage to fetuses. All adults with serious lead poisoning could suffer major health problems, ranging from kidney malfunction to depression.
Before we look at New York’s own water infrastructure challenges, let’s take a minute to remember that lead is not just confined to our drinking water. Although lead hasn’t been used in paint for decades, it is still present in housing where lead paint was used prior to legislation in the 1970s banning it. And even though the use of lead in toys has been banned since 1978, it can still be found in antique toys or toys imported from foreign countries.
Concerns Over New York’s Water Systems
Just like many other areas of the country, New York State and New York City have problems with aging infrastructure. Just last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers said that it would take nearly $40 billion to replace, repair and update our state’s drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years. It also estimated that, at our current pace, it would take over 100 years to upgrade these systems.
Governor Cuomo recently announced a $100 billion infrastructure plan, much of which would supposedly be used to update New York’s aging roads, bridges and, yes, water lines. While that sounds promising, there is no plan in place to pay for these projects and no projected timeline.
Other Water Contamination Concerns
While we are now aware of lead’s effects on our children, there are many other possible contaminants that could be present in our water systems. The New York Times recently reported that the EPA has listed over 100 chemicals and 12 microbes believed to be present in our water that do not fall under current regulations. Add to that the thousands of other contaminants experts say the EPA has not yet investigated and the implications are staggering. In other words, the things we don’t know about could be just as dangerous as the things we do.
These contamination concerns often focus on the source of water, as opposed to the delivery system. For example, in Vox’s article on Flint, linked to above, they also point to possible charges that could be levied against the city Flint and the state of Michigan regarding Legionnaires’ disease. The FBI is investigating the presence of bacteria in Flint River that causes Legionnaires’. If the unusually high number of Legionnaires’ sufferers in Flint got this disease through the negligence of state and local officials, then those parties could face serious charges.
What Can We Do?
CNN provides some tips on identifying and addressing lead contamination in our own homes. They suggest calling your municipal water supplier and asking for a copy of their Consumer Confidence Report, many of which are made available online. This will help identify whether you have possible sources of lead contamination outside of your private plumbing system.
You can also contact your local water supplier and ask if they will come to your home and test your water supply. If your supplier does not perform tests, or if you simply wish to do it yourself, you can buy testing kits from a home improvement store and send the sample off to a lab for testing.
If you choose to start buying bottled water, be sure to investigate the brand that you are purchasing to find out more about the source of that water. Some bottling companies simply use tap water, so you’ll need to find out which brand uses water from a safe source.
Parents should also take their children to a health department or a pediatrician to have blood levels tested.
The threat of water contamination is definitely a frightening one. While we wait to see what action our local, state and federal governments will take to address this issue, it might be up to us to ensure the safety of our drinking water.