Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc
Dean for Global Health
Arnhold Institute for Global Health
Professor of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Is Your Water Safe to Drink?
The United States has made enormous progress against lead poisoning in the last 40 years. Since 1976 when lead was taken out of paint and gasoline, our country has seen reductions of over 90 percent in the average blood lead levels of children. Unfortunately, lead poisoning is still with us. The predominant source of exposure is old, lead-based paint found inside deteriorating homes, but another source is aging water pipes that contain lead, as residents of the city of Flint, Michigan now know all too well.
The Flint Fiasco
Flint's water problems started nearly two years ago when, as a cost-saving measure, the city switched its water source from the safe Detroit water system to the Flint River, a heavily polluted waterway that has been used as an industrial dumping ground for years.
The Flint River water was substantially more acidic than the Detroit water and began to dissolve lead out of the old pipes. People of all ages were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water for many months. Consequently, the number of children with elevations in blood lead levels rose dramatically.
The Problem with Lead
Lead is toxic to the brain and nervous system, particularly in young children, whose brains are still developing. Pregnant women are also at risk, as the brain of the fetus in the womb is exquisitely sensitive to lead. The World Health Organization has determined that no safe blood lead level exists in infants and children. Even at the lowest levels, it can injure their brains, leading to loss of IQ points, shortening of attention span, and behavioral problems, especially difficulties in controlling impulsive behavior. While adults are not immune to lead, it takes much higher levels to cause them problems.
The U.S. water supply is generally good, but not perfect, as the situation in Flint makes clear. Besides lead, other harmful chemicals can contaminate drinking water, especially when dumping or spills take place. Some water supplies contain pollutants that originate from old manufacturing plants. For example, the town of Hoosick Falls in upstate New York is in the midst of a water crisis involving dangerous levels of the toxic chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, an industrial chemical linked to a local factory.
Benzene, which is known to cause leukemia and lymphoma, and chlorinated compounds, which have been associated with reproductive and developmental problems, are examples of other widely used industrial chemicals found in drinking water systems. In the Midwest during wet periods when material washes off the farmers' fields, high levels of pesticides are seen in drinking water up and down the entire Mississippi Valley.
In addition, sewer overflows, wastewater releases, and soil runoff can introduce harmful microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, or parasites) into the water, potentially causing gastrointestinal or other illness.
Monitoring Is Essential
While pollutants other than lead in Flint's water produced noticeable odors and discoloration that clued people in to a possible problem, there is often no obvious way to tell something is wrong. For instance, lead in water cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. And most chemical contaminants produce no immediate, clinically visible symptoms in people exposed to them.
That is why it is so important for water companies to protect their water sources against contamination; obey U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations; and conduct careful, regular, and transparent monitoring of water sources. Federal law requires water suppliers to make results accessible to the public and notify customers whenever they find elevated levels of contaminants in the drinking water. Every community water supplier also must give its customers an annual report on the quality of the water they deliver.
What You Can Do
Here are a few things you, too, can do to ensure the safety of your water:
1. Be observant. You can't always tell when something is wrong with the water, but whenever it acquires a new smell or taste, or looks cloudy, you should assume there is a problem. Switch to bottled water, and call your water company. (I do not recommend that people, in general, switch to bottled water, as most city water supplies in this country are good.)
2. Be vigilant. Look at the reports your water company provides to see what chemicals or other contaminants are in the water. If you don't receive the reports, ask for them.
3. Educate yourself. Unfortunately, information in the reports is sometimes difficult to interpret. Read the reports carefully, and ask the water company what a particular finding means if you are unsure. The EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline also provides valuable information.
4. Be willing to complain to your water supplier. If problems continue, organize with other concerned residents and urge government officials to take action if necessary.
In Flint, private citizens and a courageous pediatrician pushed hard to help bring the issue of contaminated water to the fore. In part due to their efforts, a federal emergency has been declared and Flint has switched back to a safe drinking water supply, stopping the problem at its source. However, the damage to the pipes caused by the unsafe water will take some time to fully resolve and Flint will have to monitor the water carefully in the months ahead until it's certain the lead problem has abated.
Ensuring safe water requires water suppliers to monitor this essential resource, but also requires citizenry to monitor the water suppliers.