When the COVID-19 outbreak swept across the U.S., toilet paper, hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes flew off store shelves. But shopping carts have also been full of something that most Americans get supplied straight to their home: water. Shoppers emptied store shelves of bottled water while stockpiling during the initial months of the pandemic. Even Amazon ran out of most brands of bottled water by mid-March. That month ended with an increase in sales of bottled water by 57 percent compared to the same time in 2019.
The novel coronavirus is not a waterborne pathogen. The World Health Organization says the virus’s “risk to water supplies is low.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) affirmed that “the virus that causes COVID-19 has not been detected in treated drinking water.” And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates public drinking water, recommends we continue to drink from our taps, as municipal water systems are required by law to remove or kill pathogens, including viruses like COVID-19.
COVID can’t be transmitted through drinking water, but that doesn’t mean your tap water is safe.
So what explains the bottled water hoarding when local, national and international health experts and environmental authorities have assured us that the H2O from our taps is perfectly fine for consumption?
Consumers stockpile products for various reasons, explain psychologists. For some, it’s about having some sense of control or being prepared in times of uncertainty; for instance, the water aisle is also frequently empty ahead of natural disasters like hurricanes. For others, the perceived scarcity of the stuff drives demand. Many Americans, meanwhile, buy bottled water because they do not trust the water they get through their pipes.
At a more systemic and troubling level, for millions of people living in low-income and neglected communities, buying bottled water is a must because an available source of clean, running water is simply not an option.
For tree-huggers like me, however, bottled water is definitely not the solution. Plastic is terrible for the environment. Plastic bottles take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade, and “[a]t least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which notes that “[t]he most visible and disturbing impacts of marine plastics are the ingestion, suffocation and entanglement of hundreds of marine species.” And in some cases, bottled water has been found to contain disinfection byproducts, fertilizer residue and pain medication. But in an interview, Michigan State University professor and water microbiologist Joan Rose reminded me how lucky I am to not question the safety of my tap.
“Utilities are doing a good job if people just take it for granted,” she said.
For most Americans, not being able to find Aquafina, Fiji or Dasani at their supermarket isn’t a big deal. But for the many people who cannot drink their own tap water, wash their hands or bathe because their water service is shut off or because it’s tainted, not having bottled water is a potential health risk.
Although the CDC says Americans are “fortunate to have one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world,” and the EPA boasts that more than “92 percent of the population supplied by community water systems receives drinking water that meets all health-based standards all of the time,” Dr. Rose’s 2019 article in the Conversation says that’s just “not good enough.”
In a 2018 peer-reviewed study, researchers from the University of California at Irvine and Columbia University found that health-related violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act—the federal law that regulates our tap water—are widespread, with “9–45 million people possibly affected during each of the past 34 years.” In 2015 alone, more than 20 million people “relied on community water systems that violated health-based quality standards,” the authors wrote.
“There is a growing concern about more and more pockets and places where we don’t have safe water,” said Dr. Rose, adding that it’s often rural areas, people with low incomes and communities of color who are disproportionately affected and impacted by polluted drinking water.
In 2016, two years after the Flint, Michigan, water crisis began, an Associated Press-GfK poll found “[j]ust under half of Americans” were “extremely or very confident in the safety of their own tap water,” as reported by the Associated Press. Americans with lower levels of income and Black and Latinx people were especially more likely to worry about their water being contaminated, according to the poll.
In Flint, where the switch in the water system poisoned thousands and killed many others in 2014, “[t]he city has inspected more than 25,000 service lines and has replaced 85 percent of the pipes,” according to an April article in ClickOnDetroit, but the pandemic has led to this work being put on hold. And since the crisis in Michigan began, investigations have exposed the pervasive problem of the U.S.’s toxic, aging water lines. A number of cities, notably Newark, New Jersey, have been labeled by the media as “the next Flint.”
Like Flint, Newark is facing a serious health threat to residents from lead-contaminated drinking water from old pipes. The other similarity between Flint and Newark is that the people most affected by the contamination are mostly African American and low-income populations. In both cities, affected residents were told to drink only bottled water, and, unfortunately, the coronavirus panic-buying of bottled water dwindled supplies for people who really needed it last spring.
Actor and author Hill Harper started a GoFundMe campaign along with the National Clean Water Collective to help provide Flint residents with a clean water supply during the pandemic. A message on the GoFundMe page states that Flint residents “have been suffering the past six years fighting the life-damaging and lethal effects caused by the lead found in their water system.” The campaign, launched in April to raise money for water shipments to the city, also says, “Today, the city’s plight deepens with the scarce supply of clean drinking water available during this pandemic.”
Besides Flint and Newark, much of the water infrastructure in the United States is aging and in need of replacement. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. tap water system a “D” in its latest report card, observing that most of the 1 million miles of pipes across the country were laid in the early to mid-20th century and last for around 75 to 100 years. That means most of the U.S.’s water pipes are near or past their useful life.
According to the ASCE, the American Water Works Association has estimated that it would require at least $1 trillion to upgrade and expand the existing water systems, and yet, “the investment has been inadequate for decades and will continue to be underfunded without significant changes as the revenue generated will fall short as needs grow.”
All the while, President Trump has frequently touted that the U.S. has “crystal-clean water and air.” In March, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the EPA assured Americans that taps were safe for drinking, cleaning and bathing. In a letter, Trump’s EPA head Andrew Wheeler requested to governors in all 50 states, territories and Washington, D.C., that workers across the water and wastewater sector be considered essential, as “[h]andwashing and cleaning depend on providing safe and reliable drinking water and effective treatment of wastewater.”
But in the midst of the pandemic (the day before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, no less), the Trump administration released a final rule to roll back key parts of the Clean Water Rule, which environmental groups like Earthjustice say could threaten the drinking water sources for more than 117 million Americans.
“President Trump’s administration wants to make our waters burn again,” Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer said on the organization’s website. “Under the cover of COVID-19, the Trump administration is giving extractive and polluting industries the power to dig up and destroy wetlands and to dump waste in streams, lakes, and wetlands all over the country. We will see them in court.” The rollbacks come on the heels of a troubling report, released in June by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, which found that the problem of drinking water polluted by nitrates—largely caused by fertilizer and manure runoff from crop fields—is getting worse in much of the U.S.’s farm country. The group analyzed data from 10 states and found “that in the water of more than 2,100 utilities with the most serious problems, nitrate contamination has grown steadily worse. These community water systems serve almost 21 million people across… the Midwest, Southwest, Atlantic Coast and California.”
The report’s author, Anne Weir Schechinger, gave a stern warning: “With every glass of water, over 20 million people in mostly agricultural areas are now getting a bigger dose of nitrate than before.” Schechinger, a senior economics analyst at EWG, put the responsibility of fixing this issue squarely on the source of the polluted runoff. “Until farmers clean up their act, water quality in these communities is going to continue to decline, posing a growing threat to public health,” she said.
It goes without saying that water is an essential resource. Worldwide, only 1 percent of the planet’s freshwater is easily accessible to humans, and yet supplies have become increasingly strained due to population growth, agricultural and industrial pollution and climate change. For instance, saltwater intrusion from storm surges exacerbated by sea level rise has stressed freshwater supplies.
“Almost all the deltas of the world, they are frightfully low,” Harold Wanless, a professor of geography at the University of Miami, told Yale Environment 360, “and they are primed for saltwater intrusion.”
Although Americans are fortunate to consume some of the safest and most reliable water on Earth thanks to long-standing federal laws that safeguard our water and guide our network of public water systems, nonprofit organizations like EWG have warned that the 46-year-old Safe Drinking Water Act is outdated and that the enforcement of maximum contaminant levels for certain chemicals that they say can cause adverse human health impacts must be strengthened.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has set drinking water regulations for more than 90 toxic contaminants to protect people from serious diseases. But, as EWG states, “[T]here are no legal limits for more than 160 unregulated contaminants in U.S. tap water.” So even though most of our public drinking water sources pass the federal muster, Americans around the country are potentially exposed to a number of unregulated contaminants that do not have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
And even if your water is safe for you to drink, that doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Vulnerable groups—including pregnant women, children and the immunocompromised—are at greater risk of adverse health effects from exposure to drinking water contaminants, Tasha Stoiber, PhD, a senior scientist at the EWG, explained.
In recent years, the EWG has highlighted the prevalence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, lurking in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities. This group of synthetic chemicals are used for firefighting, industrial manufacturing and nonstick Teflon products, and are often called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and accumulate in the soil and plants. They are so pervasive that a 2016 study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters found that “drinking water supplies for 6 million U.S. residents exceed[ed the]… EPA’s lifetime health advisory” of 70 nanograms per liter for these compounds.
And yet, despite the growing number of studies linking adverse health impacts associated with PFAS exposure, the EPA has yet to establish an enforceable limit for the chemicals in drinking water—even though there is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects, including links to developmental issues, thyroid disorders, immune problems and certain cancers.
Thankfully, positive change may be on horizon, as clean water advocates can cheer that Joe Biden will soon be in the White House. As the nonprofit Environment America noted in its endorsement of his presidential bid, “Biden’s support for clean water goes back to his early days in the Senate, when he cosponsored the Ocean Dumping Act of 1988, which prohibited dumping of sewage and sludge.” And, in announcing his climate team, President-elect Biden said, “[W]e have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water, and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.”
But how can you take steps now to ensure that your water is safe to drink?
If you rely on a public water supplier, every year by July 1, your local utility should issue an annual drinking water quality report, often called a consumer confidence report, or CCR. You can usually find this report online or simply call your supplier to ask for more information about your water quality.
If you are concerned about certain pollutants in your water, you might want to consider a water filter. EWG has a water filter guide to help in finding the right one based on the contaminants in a local water supply.
If you belong to one of the 13 million households that rely on private wells for drinking water, have your well water tested at least once a year for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels, the EPA recommends.
Finally, the COVID-19 outbreak has shown how important clean water is to our everyday lives, whether it’s to wash our hands or drink. Paired with the emerging challenges to our water supply, it’s clear we need to fight for strengthened drinking water protections and put forward our demand before elected officials that access to safe, affordable water is a basic human right.
Lorraine Chow, Independent Media Institute