News from the Columbia Climate School

Water you drinking?

With Jenni’s recent post on “Water Human Rights: Pollution,” I started to question the safety and current state of the public water system here in the United States. Charles Duhigg’s New York Times article confirmed my suspicions of the potentially dangerous quality of water in the US municipal water system.

contaminated-drinking-waterThe Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 have undoubtedly improved the quality of our public drinking water. Recent federal studies, however, have shown that many water treatment facilities located throughout the nation have violated the drinking water safety laws with little or no consequence. The violations range from not filing crucial paperwork to failing to report detected illegal concentrations of toxins. Though the E.P.A. recognizes these lapses, there has been little action taken to prosecute polluters when states fail to act due to economic constraints—demonstrating a systemic failure to prioritize the negative health impacts from the presence of toxins in our drinking water.

While the exact extent of the impact of polluted water is hard to pinpoint, an estimated 20 million Americans fall ill each year from drinking contaminated tap water. Diseases, ranging from gastrointestinal illness to cancer that develops from long-term exposure to carcinogenic contaminants in tap water, are just a couple of the many adverse effects of having a poor regulatory system. More recently, studies have shown that the effects of consuming atrazine, a popular weed killer that often seeps into water supplies, are more dangerous than previously thought.

Many of the dangerous pollutants found in contaminated water can be traced to more general sources, such as bacteria and nitrates from combined sewage overflow (CSO), lead and copper from corroded pipes, or fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural uses. The leading cause of water quality problems, however, can be attributed to nonpoint source pollutants. Unlike pollution that comes from sewage treatment plants, nonpoint source pollution comes form many diffuse sources through the medium of surface runoff. Toxic chemicals from energy production, excess fertilizers from agricultural use, and bacteria from animal waste can all be classified as nonpoint source pollution as the runoff picks up these contaminants and deposits them into our water resources.

In the global perspective, water pollution accounts for millions of illnesses every day. Around 90% of China’s cities suffer from some degree of water pollution, and more than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water around the world. While it is often countries like China and India that are connected to systemic poor water quality issues, the United States in fact deals with real and threatening water quality issues of its own. With Lisa Jackson as the new administrator of the E.P.A. under the Obama administration, the time has come for the E.P.A. to assume its responsibilities as our nation’s regulator and enforcer of our water resources.

Find out what’s in the water you are drinking.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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Jay
Jay
13 years ago

If we rely on the government to clean up the water supply or even wait on the EPA to enforce more stringent guidelines we could all fall ill. With more articles on these lines bringing awareness to the public will at least, educate and inform. One thing I did not see mentioned was the vast amounts of narcotics and drugs also found in our drinking water supplies. The thing is we can protect ourselves and families individually while we wait on the EPA and other government agencies to clean up.

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