Is My Water Safe To Drink? Part 1

young child drinking water out of glass bottle

This is part 1 of a 3-part blog series about water safety.

A Nationwide Crisis

In 2000, Julia Roberts earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, a woman who became an unexpected champion for environmental justice and specifically highlighted the issue of polluted water.

If you don’t know the story, Erin Brockovich was a struggling single mother of three. Faced with financial difficulties, she took the first job she was offered as a legal assistant in a small law firm. Despite lacking formal education or legal training, Erin had good instincts.

Hinkley, California

While doing some research into a case, she stumbled upon some medical records that piqued her curiosity. Intrigued, she started investigating a real estate case involving the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in Hinkley, California. Erin discovered evidence that the company had contaminated the town’s water supply with the cancer-causing chemical, hexavalent chromium, and that they tried to cover it up.

In a landmark lawsuit she won a $333 million settlement for the people of Hinkley. Despite the favorable verdict, the case isn’t over for many residents who are still suffering from health issues due to their exposure to hexavalent chromium (chromium-6). The carcinogen causes lung, prostrate, cervical, breast and stomach cancers, as well as respiratory problems. It also modifies human DNA, which can pass along the effects to future generations.

When asked about whether or not she thought the verdict has led to safer water standards, Brockovich said, “I don’t think we’re any better off. I think we’re actually worse off than when I began my work in Hinkley, and I think the thing that I feel today is absolute frustration and disappointment that we’re here, because we should’ve known, we may have known, but we failed to act to the point where we’re now in a crisis.”

Evidence of this crisis is that chromium-6 contamination affects the water supply of up to 70 million people around the country, including those of us living in New Mexico. And it’s not just chromium-6 that’s polluting our water and those of cities around the country. As lead pipes age they start breaking down and leaching into the water supply. Take the case in Flint, Michigan.

Flint, Michigan

April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in an effort to save money. However, the Flint River was heavily contaminated with lead and other toxins, mainly leaching from the aging lead pipes.

Despite numerous complaints from residents about the taste, smell, and color of the water, city officials insisted that it was safe to drink. In 2015, a study found extremely high levels of lead in the city’s water.

It was eventually discovered that state and local officials had ignored or covered up evidence of the contamination and the health risks to the community.

In total, it’s estimated that around 100,000 residents of Flint were exposed to contaminated water, and as many as 12,000 children may have suffered lead poisoning.

Lawsuits were filed and in 2019 Michigan reached a $600 million settlement with the victims of the crisis.

Despite the settlement, many residents of Flint – like the people of Hinkley, California – continue to suffer long-term health impacts of lead exposure.

And they are not alone, as many as 12 million+ lead pipes – and possibly more – carry drinking water to the homes of up to 22 million+ people across the United States, including New Mexico, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

New Mexico admittedly doesn’t even keep track of the number of lead pipes in the state, a violation of the EPA’s 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, which set health standards for lead and copper in drinking water more than 30 years ago.

New Mexico isn’t the only state that doesn’t keep track of the lead pipes servicing its residents. Is your state keeping track? You can find out from this Natural Resources Defense Council article.

Chromium-6 and lead are just a couple of contaminants found in tap water across the country. There are many others – literally thousands. Most recently, a new study estimates that 200 million Americans could have the deadly fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS in their drinking water. PFASs are also known as “forever chemicals” for the obvious reason that they never break down in the environment. They are extremely toxic, and they are everywhere. (Read more about PFASs in this blog.) 

How do you know if your water is safe? The second blog in this series explains more.