A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey found that up to 45% of the nation’s tap water could be contaminated with at least one form of harmful PFAS – a series of man-made chemicals that don’t break down in the body and create adverse health effects (NPR). This study highlights how difficult it can be to trust local drinking water, which has led to a lack of safety and confidence in communities across the country, especially those most marginalized.
According to a survey by SOURCE Global PBC, 43% of white Americans say that they are “very confident” in their tap water, while only 24% of Black Americans and 19% of Hispanic Americans indicate the same degree of confidence.
This sentiment was only reinforced by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, bottled water sales increased by 57% as people stocked up – whether preparing for water shut-offs, stockpiling in the face of uncertainty, or responding to worsening infrastructure. 25% of Black Americans indicate that they’ve been drinking more bottled water since the pandemic started, compared to only 10% of white Americans. In contrast, 62% of white Americans state they haven’t changed their consumption at all (Forbes).
• Support grassroots initiatives to bring clean water to communities in the U.S., including The Little Miss Flint Clean Water Fund, Cooperation Jackson, and the Navajo Water Project.
• Check this list to see how your state compares to national averages of safe drinking water.
• Consider: What privileges may you benefit from that shift your relationship with public utilities? What about your upbringing, current location, or other parts of your identity shapes your understanding of water?
This sharp difference in bottled water consumption is rooted in the systemic inequities in access to clean water. According to the environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action, 75% of Black Americans are more likely to live near polluting facilities than the general population. In addition, Hispanic American people are twice as likely to live in communities where drinking water violates contamination laws (Forbes). These communities are often crippled by poor infrastructure that’s only worsening due to the impact of the pandemic.
In Lowndes County, Alabama, dozens of residents have septic tanks in disrepair with no ability to connect to municipal sewer lines. As a result, raw sewage backs up into local homes or flows directly into open-air pits, contaminating drinking water and spreading E. coli and hookworm. Lowndes County’s Perman Hardy spent “hundreds of hours” advocating for her community until she finally got almost $3 million pledged for wastewater treatment (AL). But a technicality at the County Commission caused the grant money to be returned in its entirety, leaving residents without recourse (AL). Last year, we also highlighted the issues in Jackson, Mississippi; the city is under a boil water alert to this day.
The government often fails to protect water access on a federal level, too. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government is not responsible for ” taking affirmative steps to secure water” for the Navajo Nation. 30% of the nation’s residents don’t have running water in their homes (Al Jazeera). Hauling water is at least 70 times more expensive than piped water. Moreover, much of the water on these tribal lands is contaminated by mining projects started before the land was reclaimed (The Guardian). Not only does this expose residents to toxic contaminants, but the lack of clean water contributed to the spread of COVID-19 during the start of the pandemic. Consumption of sugary beverages is also much higher than average.
When federal, state, and local governments fail to address water issues, communities have rallied to fill the gap. Community leaders created the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Water Lab in Flint, Michigan, one of the most notorious stories of unsafe drinking water. This space, the first of its kind in the world, provides a trusted laboratory for local residents to get their water tested and ask questions about its safety (MPC Flint Community Lab). Initiatives like these, and the ones we linked in the Take Action section, help to increase transparency and trust for communities.
Bottled water is cost-prohibitive and wasteful but is often the only other option for residents concerned about water safety. We can do our best to hold our governments accountable and increase trust in the water we have.
• A new report found that up to 45% of the nation’s tap water could be contaminated with at least one form of PFAS.
• Lack of infrastructure and little accountability from local governments has led to public distrust in tap water, particularly in marginalized communities.
• Where governments fail, local communities rally to create opportunities to rebuild trust and increase access to safe drinking water.