America’s Water Pollution Problem

America’s Water Pollution Problem
Jonathan Ma

Every morning when you get out of bed and go to the bathroom to turn on the faucet to wet your toothbrush, do you ever bother to check how clean your water is? As soon as the clear, cool water comes streaming out, all bets are off the table: the water is safe to use. As Americans, we are blessed with some of the cleanest tap water around the world, but when we look more closely, we start seeing the cracks in the system.[1] Here’s a fun fact: according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 41 states had an Action Level Exceedance or ALE in the last three years. This means that those states all reported a higher than acceptable level of lead in their drinking water.[2] So, for the majority of Americans out there, you might need to check your water a bit more closely next time. For all of America, we need to look into our water pollution problem and begin passing legislation to undo the years of pollution that has invaded our waters and protect against future pollution.

In 2015, a small city in Michigan became famous for all the wrong reasons as news began to surface concerning water contamination in the area. In April 2014, Flint switched to the Flint River as it waited for the pipeline connecting to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) to finish construction.[3] Residents of the city began complaining about water issues as early as May 2014, and by the time Virginia Tech researchers discovered that lead levels in the water to be 13,200 ppb, which is more than double the amount at which water is considered hazardous, it was already obvious that there was something very wrong with the tap water.[4]

Even with all of the evidence pointing towards hazardous tap water, the Department of Environmental Quality continued to deny that these results indicated lead polluted waters.[5] Furthermore, in September 2015, Dr. Hanna-Attisha conducted a study that suggested significant increases in blood lead levels of children living in Flint, yet the state government attacked and denounced her findings, claiming that she was just causing “hysteria”.[6]

One of the leading factors that resulted in the lead poisoning of water in Flint was the failure of the state government to ensure that corrosion-control additives were added to the water supply.[7] The chlorine used to treat the bacteria infested water from the Flint river was eroding the old lead pipes that directed the water to resident homes, thus polluting the water with lead. The old lead water pipe system itself presented a very serious problem. Only in the past couple of weeks did the state allot Flint $87 million more for replacement efforts and propose a deal a replace most of the lead pipes by January 2020.[8]

These problems are not limited to just Flint, as the U.S. has seen evidence of lead pollution across the country. At least 30 schools in Newark, NJ have been tested to reveal lead contaminated waters.[9] Approximately 10 million Americans still receive their water from pipes that are partially lead.[10] Harvard researchers have even uncovered evidence suggesting that water supplies serving 6 million Americans measure above 70 parts per trillion for PFASs, which are chemicals linked to cancer and hormone disruption.[11]

To solve these water pollution related issues, we must begin tackling them immediately. From Congress down to our local governments, we need to begin passing legislation to refocus attention towards water pollution in America’s water system. Instead, it seems that the Trump administration is headed in the opposite direction. Earlier this year, Trump signed an executive order for the EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to begin a major revisal of Obama’s 2015 Waters of the United States rule.[12] However, this is simply a move to reduce regulation on acceptable pollution levels in order to protect companies that are big polluters. This is not the direction that we should be moving in. The Waters of the U.S. rule protects smaller water sources that are near rivers and lakes from pollution, since pollution from these nearby smaller water sources will flow into these larger water sources.[13] This is significant because increased pollution in larger water sources means that this water needs to be treated more with chlorine, which will only increase the corrosiveness and potentially further erode any lead piping, causing the water to become polluted with lead.

We need to revisit the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and begin considering legislation to more strictly protect against tap water pollution. America already uses over 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides yearly, and these pesticides eventually get washed into rivers and lakes.[14] The pesticide pollution will cause increased chlorine treatment of the water, which in turn can increase lead pollution into the water since the corrosive chlorine can erode any lead piping. Therefore, we have either the option of reducing these pesticides by further limiting the amount that farms can use, or pass legislation to fund research to find better, water friendly pesticides that are aren’t harmful to drinking water. Furthermore, the Safe Driving Water Act only covers 91 contaminants, but there are tens of thousands of chemicals that are commonly used in the U.S., and as the U.S. grows as an industrial country, more chemicals are bound to surface.[15] As a result, the government needs to be more proactive in amending the Safe Driving Water Act, so that the law is more comprehensive in its protection of drinking water.

Furthermore, Congress needs to pass stricter policies to enforce and ensure that government officials, specifically local EPA officials, are correctly identifying safe drinking water standards. For instance, much of the damage from the Flint water crisis could have been avoided if government officials admitted the findings of several research groups regarding the unsafe lead levels in the water. However, this may be an issue of corruption that can be much harder to solve. In the meantime, we need to put in place stricter research guidelines, such as connecting government officials with trusted and recognized research groups so that officials are less inclined to deny research results. In the end, the government must be held more accountable for recognizing, accepting, and reacting against problems regarding tap water pollution. Whether we can solve this politically remains to be seen.

Andrew comment:
Nice, thought provoking blog about water pollution. Good job using Flint as a major example of how tap water isn’t necessarily or “automatically” safe. I found your opening fact about ALE’s very startling because I assumed states took water quality very seriously, and it concerns me because I drink tap water often without thinking about it. As far as your solutions go, I don’t think farms will ever stop using pesticides so I think cleaner, more safe pesticides are probably the best option. However, you mention the government should have ultimate responsibility for water safety, but do you mean the state, local, or federal government? Who should bear the financial burden of pesticide research? Also, should states be held accountable when their pesticides get into another state’s water supply?
Adrian comment:
I definitely think that the Safe Water Drinking Act and Clean Water Act should be reevaluated in the US. After the crisis in Flint it is going to become imperative to ensure that all communities across the country are receiving the right of clean and safe drinking water. Federal and state governing bodies should be held more accountable for their actions in water regulation.
ZaKerra comment:
The introduction is attention-grabbing and very thought-provoking. Water pollution is something that we seldom think about as Americans, and this does a great job of explaining the issue. It is also interesting to go behind the sensationalize reports of the Flint water crisis and learn the cause and critical factors in such a mismanaged case. I think it was also great to highlight that this issue is not localized to Flint. This blog really creates a call to action for Americans and holding our government accountable. It is important to take another look at existing policy as you have done with the Safe Drinking Water Act. And giving multiple aspects and solutions for your recommendation is also great, very well done. While you state that action should be taken at every level, it is interesting that you focus back on Congress. But I agree that immediate action must be taken.

[1] McLendon, Russell. “How polluted is U.S. drinking water?” MNN – Mother Nature Network. March 22, 2017. Accessed April 3, 2017. drinking-water.
[2] Gusovsky, Dina. “America’s water worries are bigger than Flint.” CNBC. March 28, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2017.
[3] Kennedy, Merrit. “Lead-Laced Water In Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A Crisis.” NPR. April 20, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2017.
[4] Ibid
[5] Yan, Holly. “Flint water crisis: How years of problems led to lead poisoning.” CNN. March 28, 2017. Accessed April 3, 2017.
[6] Ganim, Sara, and Linh Tran. “How Flint, Michigan’s tap water became toxic.” CNN. January 13, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2017.
[7] Carmody, Tim. “How the Flint River got so toxic.” The Verge. February 26, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2017.
[8] Bosman, Julie. “Michigan Allots $87 Million to Replace Flint’s Tainted Water Pipes.” The New York Times. March 27, 2017. Accessed April 3, 2017. Pollution.
[9] Ibid 2
[10] Delaney, Arthur. “Lots Of Cities Have The Same Lead Pipes That Poisoned Flint.” The Huffington Post. February 22, 2016. Accessed April 4, 2017.
[11] Scutti, Susan. “Millions of Americans drink unsafe water, study says.” CNN. August 09, 2016. Accessed April 4, 2017.
[12] Cama, Timothy. “Trump moves to kill Obama water rule.” TheHill. February 28, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2017.
[13] “Clean Water Rule Protects Streams and Wetlands Critical to Public Health, Communities, and Economy.” EPA. April 11, 2017. Accessed April 4, 2017.
[14] Hearn, Merlin. “20 Water Pollution Facts – For the United States and Throughout the World.” Water Benefits Health. Accessed April 4, 2017.
[15] Ibid 1