We Need To Get The Lead Out. Now.

Categories

Clean Water

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0© Theen Moy / Flickr.com
by Mia DiFelice and Mary Grant

We’ve heard this story so many times, it’s lost its shock. Lead found in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, our plumbing. Since the scandal in Flint, Michigan came to light in 2016, lead in our water has been a running story in our newsfeeds. And no wonder — every state in the country has lead service lines. 

A reminder: there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and it’s especially dangerous for children. It can lead to developmental disorders, damage to the nervous system and blood cells, and more. In 2021, out of a million children in the U.S. tested, half showed detectable levels of lead in their blood. Lead exposure is much more likely for poorer children and children of color, reinforcing historical inequities. 

Replacing lead lines is a human rights issue, a public health issue and a social justice issue. Yet, our elected officials have dragged their feet on full funding to fix this problem. Meanwhile, corporations are targeting municipal governments for privatization — which only stands to worsen the crisis.

The Link Between Lead And The Loss Of Local Control 

Flint’s lead crisis began when a state-appointed emergency manager took control of the city and changed its water source, supposedly to cut costs. Then-Governor Rick Snyder used the state emergency manager law to strip majority Black cities of democratic decision-making. This put money for bondholders before the health and wellbeing of residents. Immediately after the switch, residents raised the alarm about the gross, discolored water. The state emergency manager’s response? To repeatedly insist that the water was safe to drink. 

In 2014, Veolia, the world’s largest water corporation, was hired to study Flint’s water system and offer advice. It told the city that the water was safe. Now, the company faces a lawsuit from Flint children who were poisoned. It wasn’t until October 2015 that public health community organizing and advocacy got the emergency manager to switch the water supply back.

After Flint’s crisis came Pittsburgh’s. Pittsburgh also relied on a deal with Veolia that failed to protect public safety. As in Flint, the City was strapped for cash. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the City needed billions of dollars to get its water system up to snuff. So Pittsburgh called on Veolia to cut costs and manage the system. 

Veolia’s contract with Pittsburgh, as with many of its other clients, paid the company a percentage of the savings it touted. This explicitly incentivized Veolia to cut costs as much as possible. One of the items on the chopping block during its tenure was water treatment. The system switched to a cheaper corrosion control chemical — a change made without necessary state approval. And the consequences, as in Flint, were dire. Lead contamination surpassed the EPA’s action levels, or the level at which water systems must take action. It blew past the level of contamination deemed safe by public health officials — that is, zero. 

We Need Clean And Affordable Water

Nationally, privatization is wreaking havoc on our water supply. On average, utility bills are 59% higher for those on private systems versus public. At the same time, the incentives for quality plummet. Cutting costs for profit means cutting corners. Ultimately, residents pay the price.  

This summer, Rep. Rashida Tlaib led a tour of Michigan for the “Get The Lead Out” Caucus. The caucus is digging deeper into the issue of lead in our drinking water through research and conversations with residents on the ground. As they prepare recommendations for the House, we need to make clear our demands for clean, affordable, lead-free water. 

Get the lead out in…

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In 2016, 17% of Pittsburgh houses were turning up with lead contamination above the EPA’s action level. Since then, the local water authority has replaced 52-miles-worth of public and private lead service lines. However, the City has much more work ahead of it. About 8,000 service lines still need to be replaced, with aims to finish by 2026. Meanwhile, about 400 children are diagnosed with lead poisoning in the City each year.

SCROLL SIDEWAYS TO NAVIGATE

The Wet Well is where all of the wastewater enters the plant. CC BY-SA 2.0; 90.5 WESA, Flickr
Get the lead out in…

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s lead crisis began in November 2000 when the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority changed a water treatment chemical. Lead rose to dangerous levels among the city’s 25,000 residences with known lead service lines. The DCWSA tried downplaying the risks of lead. They knew the lead levels were elevated in 2002, but the public didn’t know until the Washington Post published an exposé in 2004. By failing to properly notify the public, DCWSA violated our national lead-in-water rule. Now, twenty years later, NRDC estimates that D.C. has almost 32,000 lead service lines. The District’s officials and utility company have taken little action to address the ongoing threat.

Construction workers check on progress inside a CSO tunnel for the Clean Rivers Project in D.C.
Get the lead out in…

Benton Harbor, Michigan

Since 2018, lead testing has revealed dozens of homes in Benton Harbor with dangerously high levels. Last fall, a coalition petitioned the EPA for emergency action to bring those levels down. In response, the Governor signed an executive order to give residents alternative water and filters. It will cost $30 million to replace the City’s service lines, as nearly all were confirmed to have lead or could possibly have lead in 2020. By June 2022, two-thirds of the city’s lead service lines had been replaced. Residents continue to call for a stronger response to the crisis, including faster assistance to replace all lead service lines.

Get the lead out in…

Flint, Michigan

Eight years have passed since Flint’s water crisis shone a national spotlight on the lead in our pipes. Yet, Flint residents still struggle with untrustworthy water and unaffordable water bills. In 2015, tests showed that Flint’s water exceeded 25 ppb of lead in most samples, with some reaching over 100 or even 1,000 ppb. City and state officials repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink, but local organizing forced the emergency manager to switch back water sources. Flint is aiming to finish all lead service line replacements by September 2022. 

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; George Thomas, Flickr

A Strong Lead-in-Water Rule

By October 2024, President Biden’s administration has promised a stronger Lead and Copper Rule. For years, community groups have urged action to fix the broken lead-in-water regulation. Our government needs to lower the action level as close to zero as possible, improve sampling and require full lead service line replacement within a decade. These changes will help ensure that we get lead out of our water. 

At the same time, communities must get the funding they need to ensure everyone can access clean water — water that isn’t poisoned by lead.

A Solution In The WATER Act

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill directed $15 billion a year for lead service line replacements. It distributes about half of that through loans instead of grants dedicated to disadvantaged communities. This is not enough. In fact, it’s only a quarter of what the water industry says we need to replace every lead service line in the country. 

We have another option — the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act led by Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders. This legislation has more than 100 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate. The WATER Act would dedicate $35 billion each and every year to update our water systems, including replacing lead service lines. It would send $1 billion a year specifically to schools to improve water pipes and fixtures. And, the WATER Act is the only water funding proposal that explicitly calls for water to remain in public hands.

Call on Congress to support the WATER Act.

Announcing 100+ Sponsors for the WATER Act

Categories

Clean Water

by Mary Grant

More than eight years ago, millions of people watched the water crisis in Flint, Michigan unfold on national television. An entire city was poisoned when decades of federal disinvestment in water infrastructure collided with a racist emergency management regime imposed by former Governor Rick Snyder. Justice was denied to Flint on June 28, 2022, when the state supreme court threw out charges to hold Snyder accountable based on a technicality. 

In early 2016, driven by the crisis in Flint, Food & Water Watch worked with our allies on a pivotal piece of legislation: the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act — the WATER Act. This month, we reached a major milestone in this six-year campaign. Since it was introduced by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Sanders, more than 100 representatives and 6 senators now officially support this legislation. With more than 550 endorsing organizations, we are continuing to grow support in Congress to pass the WATER Act as the landmark water law of the 21st century. We have a lot more work to do to ensure water justice.

A Permanent Water Solution 

The WATER Act is the only comprehensive approach to improving our drinking water and wastewater systems. It will create a trust fund to provide funding to meet the level that the EPA says is necessary to update and repair our public and household water systems. To do that, the Act will provide $35 billion annually to restore the nation’s public water infrastructure, including: 

  • $15.2 billion a year to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to upgrade and improve public drinking water systems (including lead pipe removal and treatment for PFAS contamination); 
  • $15.7 billion a year to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to pay for publicly owned wastewater system upgrades;
  • $1.1 billion a year to fix drinking water infrastructure in schools, including replacing lead pipes and fixtures; 
  • $1.2 billion a year to help update and install household septic systems and wells;
  • $1.4 billion a year to protect drinking water sources from pollution; and
  • $349 million a year for technical assistance to rural, small and Indigenous wastewater and drinking water providers. 

The WATER Act will help prevent another water crisis like Flint by restoring federal funding to safe water. And it will ensure local communities have the support they need to provide every person access to clean water. 

Deepening Water Crises 

Many of the water and sewer pipes under our streets were built in the years immediately following World War II. They are outdated and wearing out. Since that era, we’ve learned about many new toxic chemicals that their treatment systems aren’t built to remove. On top of that, they were not built for today’s climate reality. 

For many, the signs of our aging water systems erupt to surface in the form of water breaks and sewer overflows. Each year, we waste 2 trillion gallons of drinking water from hundreds of thousands of water main breaks. And in a dire threat to public health, more than 850 billion gallons of raw sewage spills into basements, homes, roads and waterways.

For some communities — disportionately Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color — the harm has been more profound. Communities like Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan face toxic lead poisoning, while communities like Jackson, Mississippi and Puerto Rico have faced climate change-fueled catastrophic system failures. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Fell Short 

When President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure package into law last year, it provided a downpayment on our water improvements. But it falls far short of what our water systems and our communities desperately need. 

According to the EPA’s latest assessments, our water systems require at least $744 billion in investment over the next 20 years. That’s more than $35 billion a year — just to comply with existing federal law.  

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided only 7% of the funding that our communities require to meet existing water quality standards. Congress needs to hear that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law cannot be the end of support to fund clean and safe water for everyone. 

We need a permanent water solution. We need the WATER Act.

Tell Your Congress Members to Cosponsor the WATER Act Today!

PFAS: No Sticking, No Staining … And Not Going Anywhere

Categories

Food SystemClean Water

By Mia DiFelice

The story begins in 1938, with the accidental invention of Teflon. Made famous by the miraculous “nonstick” cookware, Teflon flooded American kitchens in the 1960s. But Teflon’s stick- and stain-fighting power comes from the chemical PFOA. As Teflon sold the miracle of PFOA to consumers, new, similar chemicals flooded the market. Those chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are showing up in our baby clothes, our burger wrappers, our blood. And they’re not going away any time soon.

Is That a Bad Thing?

Very — and PFAS manufacturers have known this for a long time. In 2005, the EPA fined Dupont, the maker of Teflon, $16.5 million. The fine penalized Dupont for covering up decades of studies that linked PFOA to cancer, birth defects and liver damage. Dupont and 3M, the maker of another PFAS chemical, knew back in the ’60s that these substances could be dangerous.

Now, we see studies linking PFAS to thyroid disease, decreased fertility, endocrine disruption, cognitive problems and immune system impacts (for example, reduced response to vaccines). There is even evidence linking PFAS exposure to greater risk of COVID and more severe COVID symptoms.

Despite this research, the U.S. still lacks federal regulations for PFAS. Chemical companies can keep information on PFAS close to the chest, so we often can’t know if a product we purchase contains the chemicals. Our federal government does not regulate all industrial PFAS wastewater discharges, either. On top of that, it has not designated PFAS as hazardous substances, which would help clean up contamination sites.

Where Do We Find PFAS?

In short, everywhere. If a product is labeled non-stick, stain-resistant or water-resistant, there’s a good chance it contains PFAS. And once PFAS are in the environment, they spread and persist. When we toss garbage with PFAS in it, the chemicals leach from the landfill into our air, water and soil. Then they can get into the groundwater. Scientists have even found PFAS in places thought to be undamaged by humans, like the Arctic and the deep ocean. In the U.S., researchers estimate they’re in 97% of people’s blood.

And PFAS, also called “forever chemicals,” are nearly impossible to get rid of. If a manufacturer stopped using PFAS right now, they could still find traces in products coming out of that plant a decade later.

The Stuff We Buy

Stain-resistant and water-resistant fabrics usually have PFAS. For instance, a recent study found 60% of fabrics used in children’s products labeled “waterproof” or “stain-resistant” contained PFAS. When PFAS-treated upholstery or carpeting wears down, we inhale the dust. We can eat PFAS when they slide off our water-resistant food packaging. They’re also in our cosmetics and our toiletries, where they are most likely to get into our systems through our eyes.

The Food We Eat

When we flush products with PFAS down the drain, the chemicals build up in our sewers. Many wastewater treatment plants filter out the solids and clean the water. But those solids have to go somewhere, and often, they go to farms. Farms have long-used sewer sludge as fertilizer. As a result, the Environmental Working Group estimates that 20 million acres of US cropland could be contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals now appear in the crops of PFAS-affected farmland — and in the meat and milk of animals that eat those feed crops.

The Water We Drink

In 2021, EWG found PFAS contaminants in the public and private water of all 50 states. We might drink from the tap several times a day, so if PFAS are in the water, our bodies are continuously contaminated. Researchers have found PFAS in the drinking water of towns near factories that work with the chemicals. They’ve found the chemicals in the drinking water of towns near military bases, which use PFAS-laden firefighting foam for training exercises. We depend on water to survive — our government should not allow it to be laced with toxic forever chemicals.

What Can We Do About PFAS?

Many companies have voluntarily phased out PFAS, especially in the last twenty years as their dangers came to light. However, the EPA has not set a legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, nor required manufacturers to help clean up contamination.

In 2021, the agency released its “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” committing the agency to several measures to combat PFAS in the next few years. And just this week, it designated $1 billion of Infrastructure Bill funds to help local communities address PFAS. In the same announcement, the EPA published health advisories on four major PFAS chemicals — but this is out of thousands in the family.

While these are important steps in the right direction, the advisories aren’t enforceable, and communities have already waited decades for action. There is so much more work to be done. 

Food & Water Watch calls for:
  1. PFAS to be regulated as a class of chemicals, not on an individual level. Much of the work on PFAS so far has focused on PFOA and PFOS, allowing dozens of other PFAS to come onto the market with little scrutiny. When PFOA came under fire, Dupont was quick to replace it with GenX, shorter-chain compounds that share many of the same toxic traits as its sibling chemicals. But GenX may be even more toxic and could be more difficult to remove from drinking water. Without addressing PFAS as a category, the EPA will continue playing whack-a-mole with the thousands of varieties.
  2. Enforceable national drinking water limits, not only for legacy PFAS chemicals but all the chemicals in the family.
  3. Hazardous substance designation under the Superfund law for PFAS as class to jump start the cleanup of contaminated areas. 
  4. Passage of the WATER Act, which provides greater support for local water systems to test and treat for PFAS in drinking water and wastewater systems. This support must reach both public water utilities and household wells. If remediation isn’t possible, Congress must provide support to connect communities with contaminated water  to new, clean water sources. 

We need more funding and better policy for PFAS. Tell Congress to pass the WATER Act!

How Big Ag & Aging Infrastructure Are Blighting Our Beaches

Categories

Clean Water

by Michael Doerrer

For many families, summer means time at the beach! Streams, rivers, lakes and oceans are huge recreational draws — and they should be. They’re a natural resource we should all be able to enjoy. But broken wastewater infrastructure and giant corporations are bringing on summertime sadness. Beach closings are on the rise.

From Bathrooms to Beaches

We all know sewage spills hurt the environment. They pollute rivers, streams and other waters. Their toxins and pathogens endanger our health. Toxic overflows destroy aquatic ecosystems, kill fish and close shellfish harvesting areas. And as we try to enjoy the summer season, sewage spills have made many waters too polluted to swim, boat or fish in. Over the last five years, about a third of U.S. beaches have had at least one advisory or closing each year. 

Aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems lead to closures. Sewer spills led to nearly 15% of beach closing and advisories with known causes. Many more with unknown causes were certainly related to wastewater events.

Big Ag’s Waste Coming Ashore

Pollution from industrial agriculture and other sources leaves two-thirds of U.S. estuary waters at greater risk for harmful algal blooms. And that means more unhealthy and even dangerous waters and beaches. For example, less than a third of the shoreline along the Great Lakes is in good biological condition. A third is in fair or poor condition.

Agricultural pollution wreaks havoc on all types of water bodies and waterways. More than 50% of rivers and streams, 40% of lakes and 20% of coasts are polluted with excess nutrients that cause algal growth and fish kills. On top of that, more than 70% of wetlands have lost plant life, stressing the ecosystems there.

How You Can Help Protect Our Beaches

The handful of giant multinational corporations that control U.S. agriculture care more about profit than human health. They brazenly pollute, while would-be government regulators do little to stop them. 

But we can step in to defend our beaches. We can demand funding to improve wastewater systems and address stormwater. And we can stand up for commonsense policies and legislation like the WATER Act to help save our water and our beaches. 

Food & Water Watch is fighting to spread the word about this landmark legislation — the bill already has more than 100 co-sponsors in Congress! It’s the best way to start restoring federal support for water protections. At the same time, we’re standing up to the corporate polluters ruining our beaches and waterways.

This summer, as millions of us head for the sand, let’s remember that our waterways need our help. Our beaches — and our summertime traditions — depend on our action. 

Help save our shores. Tell Congress to support the WATER Act!