U.S. Water Concerns: Issues with Pipes, Sewers. & Groundwater

You’ve likely heard all about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan that started in 2014. The city was having issues with its budget, so to save money; the state switched the city’s surface water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Residents were surprised by the switch since the river was known for being dirty. Even though this switch was a concern, the problem got even worse since anti-corrosive agents weren’t used to prevent iron and lead from leaching off pipes into the water.

Many residents were having serious health issues due to the lead. Lead poisoning can cause symptoms like:

  • fatigue
  • memory loss
  • insomnia
  • joint pain
  • nausea

And now this overexposure is a life-long concern for many residents since it can cause mental impairment, serious illness, increased risk of heart disease and cancer, and even death. As you can imagine, this issue is still on-going: there is now a federal health state of emergency, litigations, and criminal indictments against those who were negligent. Besides affecting just its residents, the Flint, Michigan crisis has made water safety a hot-topic all across the U.S.

An Increased Concern for Water Safety

Besides problems with chemicals leaching into waterways, you may want to be concerned with sanitary sewer overflow (SSO). SSO occurs when untreated sewage is discharged into the environment before it is treated. It happens due to excess storm water, damaged sewer lines, blockages and the like.

Although you’d think that this would happen mainly in undeveloped countries, SSO often occurs in developed countries! In fact, the EPA says that about 23,000 to 75,000 SSOs happen annually across the U.S. and mainly in cities that were built before sewage treatment facilities were implemented.

SSOs can deprive people of clean water and cost thousands of dollars to fix. For instance, just a little while after the Flint, Michigan crisis, a cast-iron water main in the San Diego area broke and left thousands of people and four hospitals without water. This break also cost $160,000 to fix—and that doesn’t include all of the clean-up involved.

Along with SSOs, contamination of groundwater is also another hot-topic for concern—especially for those living in more rural areas since most of that population relies on groundwater for drinking. In the 1970s, it was thought that soil could filter pesticides from reaching groundwater, but we now know that isn’t the case. And today, farming is responsible for about 70% of the current water pollution due to pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and the like!

An Increased Concern for Health

While the previously mentioned issues cost cities a lot in damages and deprive people of water, there are many unforeseen costs, like future health issues.

Lead poisoning isn’t the only problem; one etiological study showed that untreated groundwater and legionella (a bacteria that causes respiratory disease) in the plumbing were the top two reasons for hundreds of health outbreaks between 1971 and 2006.

Even with treated water, the EPA realizes that it would be nearly impossible to eradicate every contaminant, so they deem that safe water will have some acceptable risk.

But if the water isn’t adequately treated, then waterborne diseases will arise (e.g. myobacterium avium). On the mild side, these viruses and bacteria can cause diarrhea; but, many can lead to serious problems, like birth defects, kidney problems, heart problems, meningitis, cancer, and even death.

The Fear of Contaminants can Cause Water Poverty and the Overuse of Bottled Water

According to an article at ilikemyteeth.org, the media buzz around water safety is causing more and more people to turn to bottled water. And some populations are in a difficult position because they may not be able to afford the extensive use of bottled water, yet they don’t have any other alternative. For instance, NY Times says that about half a million Americans—typically minority and poor populations—don’t even have basic plumbing amenities. But even if these households did have good water, would they even use it? Outside of the U.S., many countries’ drinking water isn’t safe, so people are used to only drinking bottled water.

Is bottled water really the only option? Is it even better? Besides the high price of bottled water products, what people are missing is that many of these brands use the same sources as their tap water. For instance, PepsiCo’s Aquafina comes from public water sources. And to top it off, the manufacturing of these products isn’t environmentally friendly either.

What Can I Possibly Do?

If you run a business, you may be wondering what you can actually do since both tap and bottled water options aren’t ideal. Despite all the health concerns, there are actually lots of solutions. The Food Revolution Network has tons of ideas, like reverse osmosis, distillation, and carbon filtration.

You may want to consider a point-of-use (POU) cooler as well. POUs treat all incoming water before it heads to supply lines (e.g. faucets). Even though you cannot control the city’s side of your water meter, you can install a POU system so that individual supply lines don’t have contaminants, sediment, odors, etc.

References:

https://www3.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/csossoRTC2004_executive_summary.pdf

https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos

http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/Water-Main-Break-Flood-Caused-Over-160K-in-Damage-City-Official-274409891.html

http://ilikemyteeth.org/bottled-water-tap-considerations-choice/

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/opinion/for-these-americans-clean-water-is-a-luxury.html?emc=eta1 

https://foodrevolution.org/blog/taking-action/truth-about-drinking-water/