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Why Drinking Water Quality Matters

In recognition of Water Quality Month and the important role that water plays in helping children grow up healthy, we spoke with Pamela Russo and Jamie Bussel, senior program officers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who work on water issues.

Can you give us a quick overview of water quality and access here in the US? 

PR: Yes. In a nation as rich as the United States, access to clean, safe running water should be a given. Unfortunately, it’s not. More than 2 million people in America live without running water and basic indoor plumbing. 

On top of that, there are almost 10 million lead service lines in residential properties, schools and child care centers across America. Unfortunately, lead is not the only toxin common in our drinking water systems. PFAS and other toxins harmful to health pollute the drinking water in communities across the nation and impact up to 110 million Americans

While most of us live in places where the tap water is safe to drink, a long legacy of discriminatory policies and structural racism has created inequities in who does and doesn’t have access to safe, affordable water. Among communities of Color, there are consistently greater levels of drinking water health violations. 

In addition to issues of water quality and access, water is often too expensive. Water rates have doubled over the last 20 years.  

Jamie, could you speak to how access to clean and safe drinking water can impact children?

JB: We know that leaded water has the harshest impacts on children, and the EPA acknowledges that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Scientists are still understanding the harms that PFAS and other man-made chemicals could cause to children’s health, but some studies have shown these “forever” chemicals affect growth, learning, and behavior in children from infancy through the elementary school years.

Clean, safe, drinking water is essential for healthy child development. When parents and caregivers don’t have access they can rely on, they’re forced to look for alternatives like bottled water, which can get expensive over time and isn’t great for the environment, or sugary drinks like juices and sodas, which can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and poor oral health.

We’ve got to work to comprehensively upgrade our water systems, starting with replacing lead service lines in an equitable manner, so that wherever children spend time, they have access to safe and clean drinking water. 

Why start with lead service line replacements? 

PR: The benefits of replacing our lead service lines are clear. The nonprofit research organization Altarum has created an online calculator that measures the costs of childhood lead exposure and the potential benefits of prevention over their lifetime. The tool breaks down the health costs and number of children exposed on a national and state level.

Is this a problem beyond peoples’ homes? 

JB: Yes, definitely. Healthy Eating Research published a brief in 2019 that showed that only half of states in the U.S. had a policy or program in place to support testing school drinking water for lead. The research team also conducted testing in nearly 11,000 schools in 12 states and 44% of those schools had at least one water sample at or above their state’s action level for lead. 

Many kids spend the majority of their time either at home or at school, so we must ensure they have access to safe, clean drinking water no matter where they are. Voices for Healthy Kids has works with advocates across the country who are working to make sure that every child has access to safe water in schools. In Los Angeles, they worked with InnerCity Struggle, a community-based organization, to empower students in East LA to advocate for improved water quality at their schools. 

What solutions are promising? 

PR: The obvious solution to removing lead from our water is to replace the lead service lines that run from the curb to the front door. The Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), Environmental Defense Fund, and National Resources Defense Council have all conducted research and analysis on how to equitably replace all lead service lines across the US. And it’s exciting to see that comprehensive repairs to our water systems have been included in recent infrastructure proposals. Repairing our water system will take time and investment and an accountability system for equitable implementation.

JB: While lead service lines are certainly a problem in child care centers and schools, these buildings also have old faucets and plumbing that contain lead and need to be replaced. Some school districts are solving this by replacing water fountains with water filling stations. We need to make sure schools have the resources to improve school water quality too. 

Given that these solutions will take time, how can parents and caregivers find out more information about their tap water and whether or not it’s safe to drink? 

PR: Each year, most water utilities across the country are required to provide consumer confidence reports, also known as water quality reports, to their customers. Depending on your water company, this report could be mailed to you as a hard copy or delivered via email and it’s required to contain important safety information about your water like the amount of lead and other toxins, any violations of water standards by the company, and much more. 

The unfortunate part is that many of the reports are hard to use or inaccessible, especially for people who don’t speak English. EPIC is working to change this. Earlier this year, they conducted a national competition to collect creative and easy ways to redesign water quality reports. They’re now working to implement these ideas and make it so that everyone can quickly understand what’s in their water and whether or not it’s safe to drink. 

While we’ve discussed the prevalence of unsafe drinking water across the country, we also need to point out that many Americans do have safe running water in their homes and schools but don’t trust it thanks to crises like the situation in Flint, Michigan. Nearly 60 million people across the country don’t drink their tap water even though it’s safe. Water quality reports provide an opportunity to build trust between consumers and water utilities. 

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