“Contrary to the popular expression, water is not everywhere.
As we marked World Water Day last Friday, March 22, these statistics served as humbling reminders of why not to take water for granted, and to make sure that all precautions are being taken to ensure its purity.
The United States is better off than most when it comes to the quality of its public water supply, but approximately 77 million residents are particularly vulnerable because of the decrepit state of the water infrastructure that provides tap water to their homes, according to a 2015 study. In other cases, residents live close to manufacturing facilities and factories that seep chemicals into the water supply.
The public water crisis in Flint, Michigan — where thousands of residents were exposed to water contaminated with lead — put a harsh spotlight on what happens after years of neglect.
Flint is not alone. In West Virginia, residents faced a public health crisis after a Freedom Industries’ chemical spill contaminated the Elk River’s drinking water supply, putting thousands of residents at risk.
Needless to say, such inequities severely compromise residents’ quality of life. A child dies every eight seconds because of dirty drinking water. In addition, 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.
Nongovernmental organizations — including Islamic Relief USA, which helped distribute bottled water in Flint in 2016 — will continue to do its part in providing clean water to at-risk populations around the world. However, the U.S. 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 in 1974, is intended to protect public drinking water supplies on the federal level in the U.S. It has been amended twice.
Since the last amendment in 1996, not a single new contaminant has been added for regulation. As modern science continually discovers substances that pose public health risks, it’s hard to fathom that none of them made the cut for regulation.
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.
A 2017 report by the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics pointed 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.
Such intransigence and lack of updating creates more public worry than reassurance. More needs to be done to streamline the process and make 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 scientific research.
With the combined efforts of governmental action, nonprofit assistance and personal responsibility, the United States can help serve as a model for providing clean, drinkable water for its people. It can serve as a model that’s replicated by other nations. When that happens, we can truly make a difference in the world.”
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