Clean Water Is a Human Right. Let’s Start Treating It Like One.

Allison Stevens

Feb. 25, 2021

Seven years ago, public officials in cash-strapped Flint, Michigan, cut city costs by tapping the Flint River as a source of public drinking water.

So began the most egregious example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history, according to Paul Mohai, a founder of the movement for environmental justice and a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

When they made the switch, city officials didn’t properly treat the new water, which allowed lead from corroded pipes, bacteria, and other contaminants to leach into the public drinking water supply. Flint residents, who are disproportionately low-income and Black, immediately raised alarms about the fetid, brown water flowing out of their faucets and cited health problems, such as hair loss and rashes.

But the city didn’t officially acknowledge the problem or begin to take decisive action until a year and a half later.

In the meantime, more than 8,000 children under age 6 were exposed to water contaminated by lead, which can cause developmental delays, learning difficulties and a host of other health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. And more than a hundred people died during the period from a disease caused by water-borne bacteria.

The Flint water crisis was a disaster of monumental proportions and, as Mohai notes, caused by multiple and overlapping layers of social, legal, and political injustice.

Tragically, institutional and systemic racism clouds many policy decisions related to our drinking water. Black and Brown communities are disproportionately exposed to unsafe drinking water, as well as other matters of environmental injustice, and we at the Center for Progressive Reform are working to address them.

Legislation in Maryland and Virginia

In Virginia, we’re tracking two budget amendments pending in the General Assembly that would provide the state’s Department of Health with $120,000 over the next years to continue to study contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in public drinking water. PFAS are a family of synthetic “forever chemicals” found in products meant to repel water, heat, and oil, and are used in everyday items such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, and microwave popcorn bags. They’re linked to cancer and other health hazards — and emerging research suggests they could also undermine the effectiveness of vaccines, raising concerns amid the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Cleaning up contaminated groundwater and drinking water in Virginia and reducing exposure to these chemicals is an equity issue. In a 2017 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that communities of color and low-income people are more likely to “bear the economic and biological burden of the federal government’s lack of responsiveness” to concerns about PFAS because they’re more likely to live near a PFAS-contaminated site.

In addition to state-level funding, we need action at the federal level to prevent PFAS exposure in all states. Fortunately, the Biden-Harris administration is moving toward this goal.

Lead and PFAS aren’t the only threats to our drinking water. Pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous contaminate water when it rains, increasing the risks of toxic algae blooms in water bodies and exposure to nitrates in drinking water. In Maryland, we’re tracking a bill that would require stormwater design standards and permits to reflect current rainfall patterns and put the state on a trajectory to assess and regularly update them in the future.

And we’re leading advocacy efforts for another bill in Maryland that would create a program to help ensure that well water is safe to drink. In a recent report, we found that the Old Line State has among the nation’s weakest well water protections in the country. As such, Maryland well owners may be exposed to hazardous levels of nitrates, a colorless, odorless, and tasteless toxin linked to a fatal condition in infants, cancer, and pregnancy complications.

This too is a matter of justice: Maryland’s Eastern Shore is home to most of the state’s large-scale poultry factories, which produce nitrogen-rich manure that, when overapplied to fields or mismanaged, breaks down into nitrates and seeps into groundwater and surface waters. Lower Eastern Shore counties have a higher proportion of Black residents compared to the Eastern Shore overall and higher rates of poverty than other parts of the state.

Safe drinking water — free of dangerous levels of lead, PFAS, nitrates, and other toxins — is a human right, and a recent poll CPR conducted with Data for Progress finds that the public strongly supports government regulation to reduce toxins in water. Access to clean water must not depend on where we live, how much we earn, or the color of our skin. At CPR, we’re working to ensure all people, especially those who for generations have been harmed, can turn on their faucets without fearing for their health. That is what environmental justice looks like.

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