Contaminated Water from Aging Infrastructure Causing Health Problems

The Atlantic Magazine recently reported on an alarming trend:  serious health problems are arising in communities where old and failing pipes are resulting in the contamination of residents’ drinking water.
The Atlantic article features residents of Flint, Michigan who became ill – experiencing skin rashes, hair loss, nausea and other symptoms – from a public drinking supply poisoned by lead, copper, and e coli, and tells the story of one woman who had to be hospitalized after doctors found problems in the arteries around her brain resulting from high amounts of copper and lead in the water flowing from her faucet.
The article explains how Flint, like so many financially strapped cities all over the U.S., has been forced by a shrinking population and significant fixed water utility costs to neglect its decaying water infrastructure, resulting in declining water quality and an increased risk of associated health problems. Flint had been buying its water from Detroit for decades, but when it could no longer afford Detroit’s prices, the city began pumping water from the Flint River for sale to residents. But treating the river water and making it safe for public use proved difficult and expensive, and Flint did a poor job. As a result, residents began to notice foul odors and odd colors – sometimes blue, sometimes brown, sometimes yellow – coming from their faucet water. Tests showed fecal bacteria in the water, and the city had to issue numerous advisories telling residents to boil water before usage or consumption. Engineers’ efforts to address the bacteria with chlorine resulted in dangerous levels of certain chemical compounds called trihalomethanes. (At certain levels, trihalomethanes can cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems.) Flint residents complained of rashes and other health problems and a General Motors plant noticed that the water was corroding parts of its engines. Further tests revealed dangerous and in some cases highly toxic lead levels in the city’s water. The city is still struggling with the issue.
Unfortunately, Flint is not alone. Residents of cities all over the country that cannot afford critical upgrades and repairs to aging and failing water infrastructure are subjected to a variety of health risks that contaminated water poses. Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University interviewed in the Atlantic piece, says that while Flint may be an acute case, it is not alone. “Flint is an extreme case,” he says, but nationally, there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure…This is a common problem nationally— infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.” The article cites other cases that we have reported on before: communities all over the U.S. have been forced to issue “boil water” advisories upon finding contamination by lead and other toxins that have caused residents to suffer health problems like fever, headaches, vomiting and seizures. And the Atlantic cites a recent American Water Works Association report warning that many utilities across the country won’t have the money to perform critically needed infrastructure upgrades in the coming decades, suggesting that the problem will only become more prevalent over time.
As we have said before, our cities are in no position to bear the financial burden of building and upgrading water delivery systems that guarantee safe, clean water to all residents. Too often they lack the funds and the financing flexibility to make necessary upgrades to often centuries-old infrastructure. The federal government must become a better partner in promoting the welfare, safety and good health of citizens across the country. We at CWC will continue our fight for federal funding to help cities do what it takes to keep their drinking water safe. Help us in that fight.  Click here to donate $5 or more.

About Clean Water Council

The Clean Water Council (CWC) is a group of national organizations representing underground construction contractors design professionals, manufacturers and suppliers, labor unions and other committed to ensuring a high quality of life through sound environmental infrastructure. Working in concert, CWC's 39 national organizations, advocate federal legislation and policies that will promote clean water and improve the nation's failing infrastructure.​
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