News Feature | August 21, 2017

63 Million People Exposed To Questionable Drinking Water, With Bias

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

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As many as 63 million people were exposed to potentially unsafe drinking water two or more times over the last decade, according to an investigative report by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

The researchers focused on “680,000 water quality and monitoring violations” documented by the U.S. EPA through the Safe Drinking Water Information System, a database of public water system information reported to the federal government by the states.

“The violations included two types: health-based violations and monitoring/reporting violations. Health-based violations are instances when water was found to be contaminated or not properly treated for contaminants. The story refers to these violations as water quality violations,” according to the report.

“The findings highlight how six decades of industrial dumping, farming pollution, and water plant and distribution pipe deterioration have taken a toll on local water systems,” the report said.

The report made it clear that water violations occur at systems in every part of the country. But there are patterns to which areas are hardest hit, the report said.

“Drinking water quality is often dependent on the wealth and racial makeup of communities, according to News21’s analysis. Small, poor communities and neglected urban areas are sometimes left to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments,” the report said.

Manuel Teodoro, a researcher at Texas A&M University, cited a “bias” when it comes to water safety.

"These are not isolated incidences, the Flints of the world or the Corpus Christis or the East Chicagos," Teodoro said. "These incidents are getting media attention in a way that they didn’t a few years ago, but the patterns that we see in the data suggest that problems with drinking water quality are not just randomly distributed in the population — that there is a systemic bias out there."

The report also critiqued the length of time it took water utilities to resolve issues — often over two years.

Tacoma, WA, is one city that failed to meet a timeline.

“The system failed to meet a federally mandated timeline for installing a treatment plant meant to kill the parasite cryptosporidium. Chris McMeen, deputy superintendent for the Seattle suburb’s system, which serves 317,600 people, said the pathogen has never been found in dangerous levels in the city’s water. The system was also cited for failing to test for dozens of chemicals during the past decade,” according to the report.

The report was part of News21’s Troubled Water project, which examined drinking water issues across the country.

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