Two years … for two years the residents of Flint, Michigan, were exposed to lead-contaminated water while local and state authorities dismissed claims that the brown-colored, odious water pouring from city taps represented a health threat. Exposure lasted two years despite the fact evidence indicated a problem within weeks of switching from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River, which contains water acidic enough to corrode lead pipes.
Whether you believe Flint’s disaster was motivated by greed, racism, incompetence, or a blend of all three, one thing is apparent: American water is in bad shape. National water system infrastructure is aging rapidly and only being replaced when it fails. More importantly, perhaps, the very government safeguards that supposedly protect our access to safe water seem increasingly ineffective.
Consider this: Back in 2009 the New York Times analyzed federal data concerning the Safe Water Act, which requires communities to deliver safe water to their residents. The Time discovered that over 20 percent of the nation’s 54,700 water systems “violated key provisions of the Safe Water Act” between 2004 and 2009, but only 6 percent of violators were fined or punished for their acts.
The message this inaction sends to water system authorities is they can break the law without consequences. And these were not insignificant violations — the Times ignored violations for paperwork blunders and minor violations; these were violations that directly exposed people to harmful pollutants, bacteria, lead, and other substances.
Approximately 19 million Americans fall sick every year due to water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Even more fall sick from exposure to pollutants, carcinogenic substances, lead, arsenic, mercury, agricultural runoff, and a multitude of other elements researchers haven’t even had time to evaluate for safety. We simply don’t know what these substances and chemicals do to the human body in the long run.
So where does this leave us? Do we trust water systems to do their job? To be fair, many do their best, but that’s cold comfort to the residents of Flint. Many people are taking matters into their own hands, installing whole house water filtration systems or countertop filters to provide themselves and their families with safer, cleaner water.
Since it’s an election year, perhaps it’s time to make safe water a national debate — to ask politicians if they’re willing to stand by the Safe Water Act and give the law the teeth it needs to protect public health.
If they’re not, Flint’s water crisis is only the beginning.