How Could Tap Water Be Safe Drinking Water in All Towns?
In 2014, a Flint, Michigan-based crisis made national headlines. At the time, residents complained of a brown sludge pouring through their pipes in place of the water they needed to drink. Understandably, the people wanted to know why their tap water had turned such an unsightly shade, and the reason was shocking.
The city of Flint had switched its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. This swap saved them money, but it put the entire population at risk. That's because the Flint River's water contained high levels of chloride, an element that corrodes lead. So, as the river water funneled through the public's lead pipes and into their homes, it came with a dark color — and a wealth of lead within it.
This mistake put Flint's 100,000 residents at risk since lead exposure can cause everything from developmental delays in children to neurological disorders. And it shined a spotlight on a big issue in the U.S. — can we make the tap water safe everywhere?
It's the Law
For one thing, everyone in America should have access to safe and clean drinking water — it has been the law since the 1970s. The Clean Water Act of 1972, for example, delineated a series of regulations for pollutants that might end up in the water. Two years later, the Safe Drinking Water Act set a maximum level of pollution allowed in water that the public would drink.
These laws still exist, and in many places in the country, safe water does run from taps. But, in other spots, these laws aren't enforced, leaving people to drink unsafe water. In fact, one study showed that since 1982, between three and 10% of Americans have been drinking water that violates the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Typically, this occurs in low-income areas in rural parts of the country where such infractions don't make the news.
So, the first place to start in protecting water and those who drink it would be to enforce these laws. They represent the minimum, and other communities have added even more regulations on top of the 1974 requirements. But they provide a baseline that all communities should be required to meet.
Fix the Supply System
Another way to improve water quality is to remove the harmful pieces of the supply system. In Flint, lead from the pipes made its way into the water supply. Without the metal in the city's plumbing, its residents would not have been exposed to lead's detrimental side effects.
So, towns and cities across the U.S. could make replacing such infrastructure a priority. On top of that, they might consider adding more water-cleansing technology to the filtration systems that already exist. In most water treatment plants, the liquid goes through a four-step cleansing process. A chemical added to the groundwater, river or lake water binds with dirt and other floating particles, creating larger blocs that eventually falls to the bottom of the tank. Then, water goes through filters that remove bacteria, parasites, chemicals, viruses and dust. Finally, the water must be disinfected with either chloramine or chlorine. Some places add flourine, too, to strengthen water-drinkers' teeth.
As time goes on, though, improved filters will be necessary to remove new contaminants, as more and more emerge. For instance, a granular activated carbon filtration system can rid water of perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, both of which are relatively new contaminants that can appear in groundwater.
Finally, it could very well be up to the public to get the ball rolling on nationalized clean drinking water, as promised by the law for nearly half a century. In the 1970s, the people demanded such action from lawmakers, and they got two pieces of legislation protecting the water supply. Those in Flint have started the discussion, but it's up to the entire country to make it a priority, no matter with which political party they side. It could be a phone call to a representative or participation in an environmental march. No matter what, clean water should be a priority for everyone.
Bio: Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.