“Contrary to the popular expression, clean water cannot be found everywhere. Consider this:
Water is not a simple thing, as Flint, Michigan realized five years ago after thousands of residents were exposed to water contaminated with lead. Their situation put a harsh spotlight on what happens after a city neglects its water delivery system for decades.
More recently, Newark is feeling the same pain. In the past few weeks, numerous Brick City residents lined up in hot weather to receive bottled water because their tap water was contaminated with lead. Fortunately, a plan was recently announced to replace 18,000 water service lines. The project will take about 24 to 30 months for completion.
Warnings about the need to address Newark’s public water problems stretch back years. A 2014 New Jersey Future report, titled “Ripple Effects,” stated that Newark has about “$500 million in needs” between its water and sewer system needs. The report also said that many of the city’s pipes are more than 100 years old.
Following the Flint crisis, both U.S. senators representing New Jersey — Bob Menendez and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker — called upon the federal government to “invest” more in water infrastructure projectsaround the country, where some $1 trillion is needed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Contaminated water poses a major public health threat. Across the world, a child dies every 8 seconds because of dirty drinking water. Each year in the United States, lead in drinking water contributes to 480,000 cases of learning disorders in children and 560,000 cases of hypertension in adult males, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Non-governmental organizations, including Islamic Relief USA, which helped distribute bottled water in Flint in 2016, will continue to do its part in providing clean water and other resources to at-risk populations around the world. However, in the United States, the federal government can take steps to strengthen enforcement and accountability of its existing laws.
One such law is the Safe Drinking Water Act. The law, enacted way back in 1974, is intended to protect public drinking water supplies on the federal level in the U.S. However, in the following decades, the bill was amended twice.
Instead of improving the overall legislation, many lawmakers concentrating on environmental issues believe the last amendment in 1996 only stifled the law’s effectiveness because of the difficulty in adding new contaminants that require regulation.
Since that amendment more than two decades ago, not a single new contaminant has been added for regulation. As modern science continually discovers substances that cause a public threat, the lack of new contaminants to be regulated to ensure safe drinking water could be interpreted by some as good news. But, more likely, it could be considered disturbing.
In California, for example, it was discovered that the public water supply had been contaminated by perchlorate, which is commonly used in jet fuel. However, attempts to get that contaminant regulated were unsuccessful, due to pressure from interest groups opposed to the regulation proposal and disagreements on what level of contamination is considered a severe public health threat.
Such intransigence and lack of updating creates more public worry than reassurance. More needs to be done to streamline the process, making it easier to include new contaminants for regulating. The United States needs to set better national standards for safe drinking water that are more reflective of modern science.
A 2017 report by the American Medical Association Journal of Ethicspointed out the myriad obstacles that are stifling the law.
“Scientific, bureaucratic, and enforcement problems have hampered its ability to protect far too many people in the United States, and its inefficiencies raise serious doubts about its resiliency in an environmental health landscape marked by political recalcitrance when it comes to regulatory change,” the report concluded.
With the combined efforts of governmental action, non-profit assistance, and personal responsibility, the United States can help serve as a model of providing clean, drinkable water for its people. It can serve as model that’s replicated by other nations. When that happens, we can truly make a difference in the world.”
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