Millions of Americans Might Be Drinking Toxic Water: What You Need to Know

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For as long as human beings have been human beings, water has been an essential part of life. We're lucky we live in a country where it's close to guaranteed that we'll have access to water for drinking and cooking and bathing, but in the past few years, we've started to realize that not all water is created equal. The crisis in Flint, Michigan, taught us that not all Americans can trust that the water they're provided with is safe to use, and a new investigation from USA Today claims the number of people who could be unknowingly drinking toxic water might be as high as 4 million. Obviously, that's a lot higher than we ever thought it could be.


There are two obvious questions to ask first: One, how do we know if our families are affected? And two, how could something like this happen on such an enormous scale?

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USA Today has answers for both. The raw data from its investigation lists the communities and towns that have skipped mandatory lead tests at some point in the past six years, leaving their citizens vulnerable to toxins. It should be emphasized, though, that communities on the list aren't all automatically contaminated -- they're just flagged for being too lax. If you see yours on there, consider testing your water.

The investigation also notes that almost all the flagged systems serve small, rural communities, probably because the water systems that are able to skirt federal standards tend to be the really small ones that are understaffed and underfunded. Testing the water in these facilities, it seems, isn't always a priority, even if they have a history of lead contamination and are supposed to focus extra attention on testing.

Part of the reason the smaller systems can get away without testing water as often helps answer the question of how this happened, too: For one thing, there are federal loopholes that allow for smaller water systems to do less testing. (For example, some systems that serve fewer than 3,300 people are only required to test for lead in their water once every nine years, whereas federal standards for most other facilities require annual testing and many will do their own tests more often than that.)

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For another, many of the flagged systems exist in communities that don't have the infrastructure to deal with unsafe pipes or old equipment. Federal fines don't do much to encourage communities that can't afford them, and loans from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture don't do much to offset the cost of repairs and upgrades. And anyway, many towns wouldn't be able to pay them back.

In total, the USA Today investigation found that about 100,000 people are getting their drinking water from water systems that know there's too much lead but did not and are not doing anything about it in the time frame outlined by the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Separately, 4 million people are getting drinking water from systems small enough to skirt federal regulation. Hundreds of those have gone without proper testing for five or more years, and about 850 have a history of lead contamination but have failed to test for lead for the past six years.

And that's terrifying.

Unsafe drinking water affects our homes and our schools, and lead poisoning can lead to irreversible brain damage, lower IQs, behavioral problems, and language delays, and children and pregnant women are particularly susceptible. 

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The crisis in Flint two years ago stemmed from similar realizations. The repercussions were enormous enough, and that was only one city with a population less than 100,000. The fact that a similar crisis could be playing out in thousands of separate communities across the country should be shocking and upsetting and it should provoke change. It's time.

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