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How to Drink Water After Flint

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After our trust is shaken, how can we reclaim our water’s safety?

By Robin Jacobs Posted Feb 9, 2016

Dirty tap water

Water. It’s in our soup, in our coffee, in our bathtubs and our baby bottles. When it’s clean and abundant, we take it for granted. Even if you’ve never been to Michigan, you’re probably feeling for the people of Flint. Their betrayal hits hard. Americans are raised to feel uncommonly safe and protected. Like most affluent “first world” nations, our government agencies and public utilities are assumed to be competent, transparent, and trustworthy. So when Flint residents were repeatedly told their drinking water met all standards, they tried to believe it.

Sadly, the United States has a history of ignoring grave health risks in favor of corporate interests. Although lead-based paint was recognized as hazardous to children by 1904, the United States failed to ban it until 1978. In the early 1920s, while most European countries were banning leaded paint, the US was actually introducing leaded gasoline to support the profits of the lead industry. The large-scale health effects of decades of lead inhalation are impossible to determine, but the worst effects were likely seen in older, poorer cities, where flaking paint and concentrated exhaust fumes combined in a toxic lead assault. Government regulators ignored all evidence. So why are we surprised to see it happening again in Flint, another neglected low-income community where industrial interests have long trumped public health?

United States Senate
Flint’s nightmarish scandal is now well known, and investigators are struggling to assign blame and bring those accountable to justice. Having been labeled hysterical and paranoid, the whistleblowers are finally experiencing some bitter vindication. But prosecution and even financial settlements cannot undo the damage.

Lead exposure can irreversibly damage every organ in the body, and the risks for young children are gravest. Exposed during crucial developmental stages, lead poisoning permanently lowers IQ, causing learning disabilities, behavior problems, stunted growth, hearing loss, kidney damage, and future reproductive problems. Lead gets absorbed into the bones and damages the marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells. Many parents in Flint are grieving the loss of their children’s future potential and health.

Plastic water bottle waste

About those truckloads of bottled water

How can we help? Michael Moore, the activist filmmaker who also happens to be a native of Flint, urges us to stop sending bottled water. With righteous anger toward those he sees as perpetrators of a discriminatory crime, Moore says the negligent state of Michigan must take responsibility for the fix. He points out that given the scale of the disaster, the quantities of bottles to supply Flint’s daily need is staggering: 20.4 million 16-oz bottles per day. A viable short-term alternative could involve water trucks delivering daily refills to householders’ 55-gallon barrels, as well as voluntary evacuation for any residents who wish to leave immediately.

Those millions of bottles already delivered represent the intense compassion and urgency so many of us felt when we heard the news. Unfortunately, they also represent a tremendous environmental burden of plastic waste. More troubling, any of us feeling anxious about our own water safety may be tempted to soothe those feelings by buying our own cases of plastic bottles representing purity and security.

“…there is no reason to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water.”

Let’s not forget that bottled water is an ecological travesty. Of the 50 million bottles of water used by Americans last year, less than 23% were recycled. 17 million barrels of oil were wasted in making and filling those bottles. And the clincher: bottled water is a trust exercise just as much as tap water. Testing requirements for municipal water are actually more stringent — and more public. Scientist Dr. Gina Solomon at the Natural Resources Defense Council says “there is no reason to believe that bottled water is safer than tap water.”

Berkey Light water filter

So how can we act responsibly, reduce our impact, lower our expenses, and still feel safe about what’s going into our bodies? A good water filter takes care of troubling contaminants, even the ones your city water system allows (or adds, like disinfectants). Most bottled water is actually just purified city water anyway, so why not cut out the middleman? That’s what 300 volunteer plumbers did in Flint last weekend. They drove from all over Michigan to install faucet-mounted filters in as many Flint homes as they could reach — at no charge.

Fortunately, broad-spectrum household water filtration is a reliable precaution against oversights, accidents, or negligence at the local reservoir. A stand-alone home unit like the Berkey Light, with the powerful Black Berkey filter element, requires no electricity or water pressure and can reduce the concentration of lead and other heavy metals in water by over 97%. Pathogens, heavy metals, radionuclides, VOCs, even hard-to-filter additives like fluoride cannot pass through. An integrated countertop filter also eliminates most water problems for those hooked up to a municipal system. Take note: most inexpensive pitcher filters (Brita, PUR, etc) do not claim to eliminate lead, though they may reduce its presence; they should only be relied upon to improve some water’s taste.

It’s not only Flint

Unsafe levels of lead in drinking water have turned up in scores of cities in recent years. The EPA, whose annual budget for drinking water oversight has been reduced 15% since 2006, says that streams tapped by water utilities serving a third of the population are not yet covered by clean-water laws that limit levels of toxic pollutants. Between 3 and 10 million older lead water pipes remain in community water infrastructures across the country. Clearly, states’ ability to protect drinking water standards is diminished, with the EPA planning to propose strengthening lead regulations in drinking water in 2017. How long before we can trust our drinking water sources, after stricter regulatory efforts are even brought forward for consideration, is anyone’s guess.

We can go further.

By collecting our rainwater, we not only reduce the burden on local aquifers in a drought-prone era, we get water that starts out purer (you’ll still need to filter it, though). With a little research, we can each prepare our home for any water-related emergency.

Extreme weather events are becoming routine, earthquakes and industrial accidents haunt our dreams, and climate-change anxiety is on the rise. Each of these can cause a temporary or long-term interruption in safe reliable tap water. We’ll all sleep better knowing we’re ready to face whatever comes.

I heart clean water

How can I be sure?

How is your aquifer’s health? You don’t have to wait for the powers-that-be to tell you about your water, and then hope they are telling the whole story. Go ahead and test your water for yourself. You can perform some tests at home, whether you use city water or your own well. Use these tests as often as you like. A quick Google search can help you find the nearest water-testing laboratory for a more extensive test revealing exact quantities of each organic and inorganic element of your water.

If your home was built before 1986, the plumbing is likely to contain lead — but even newer homes with so-called “lead-free” plumbing can legally contain up to 8% lead! This is a bigger problem for certain types of water; high-acid or low-mineral-content water will pick up much more lead through corrosion as it flows through the system. If your water test asks you to run the taps for a while before collecting a sample, you won’t get the whole story on how much lead you might be ingesting. That’s what happened in Flint.

Lead has no place in our water or our homes. The shocking cover-up of Flint’s poisoned water is a wake-up call: it can happen here. In smaller ways, contamination happens all the time. Public water supplies fail to meet standards and keep flowing into homes, because improving the quality takes time and money, and that’s not always in the budget this year. Variances and exemptions are granted based on circumstances, and most consumers remain unaware.

Today, we can take action to send a clear message that we stand with the people of Flint — justice in Flint will set a precedent that such negligence is unacceptable. America cannot survive on bottled water. The way to reclaim our tap water and protect our family’s health is through reliable filtration and a commitment to conservation.

If you want to protect your community’s access to clean water, consider becoming a Waterkeeper, or connecting with one in your area. These stewards work locally to tackle site-specific pollution and watershed health. By strengthening our local community connections, we can empower one another. Let’s move beyond our anger and distrust of the faceless institutions that let us down. Justice for Flint may be a long road, but your own tap water is in your hands.

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Robin Jacobs grew up in the “back to the land” movement in rural Maine, and then made her way to the west coast where she now practices some of the same values of simplicity and sustainability with her husband and daughter. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, with special interests in holistic nutrition and community systems.
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