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Houston water outage is tip of America’s tap water iceberg

By Madison Dibble - InsideSources.com | Dec 24, 2022

More than 2 million Texans were left without clean drinking water after a treatment facility power outage in Houston. It was the third time that Houstonians were boiling water to brush their teeth in three years.

And while the outage undoubtedly caused stress at the end of a holiday weekend, the people of Houston got off easy compared to many other Americans. Their boil water advisory lasted only a few days. Other cities have been under advisories for years.

Residents of Keystone, W.Va., have been under a boil water advisory for a decade. Residents have been forced to rely on bottled water — sometimes making several trips per week — to keep their families hydrated. Families in Durham, Conn., recently had clean water restored after more than 30 years of severe contamination.

It’s not, as some think, just small towns facing lengthy outages. Baltimore residents were without water for weeks after E. coli was detected in the water. The people of Jackson, Miss., have been dealing with repeated boil water advisories for years, including one 2-month-long outage earlier this year.

Despite receiving very little attention nationally, cities are placed under boil water advisories daily because of tap water infrastructure failures. According to our boil water advisory database at IsTapWaterSafe.com, there were 766 reported boil water advisories in 10 months this year. That does not include the more minor advisories that often go unreported.

Water main breaks are the most common reason for boil water advisories. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that one water main breaks every two minutes in the United States.

These breaks occur when a pipe bursts — often due to poorly maintained infrastructure or construction accidents — allowing contaminants to rush in while the water supply loses pressure. Without the proper pressure, the system cannot work properly and dangerous pathogens such as E. coli can seep into the water. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 7.2 million Americans yearly suffer from waterborne illnesses.

Boiling water can rid it of pathogens, but the warnings only work when people know they are in place. The United States has no uniform notification system for boil water advisories. A quick peak on Twitter shows many Houston users were unaware of the boil water advisory for hours. Some found out only after the advisory was lifted.

Not all water problems can be boiled away.

It took more than a year for Benton Harbor, Mich., to have access to safe drinking water after lead contamination was detected. The water had poured out of the pipes “sizzling like Alka-Seltzer” before residents were notified of the contamination.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, no amount of lead exposure is safe. Lead exposure, among other things, can stunt brain development, leading to learning disabilities. Yet many schools throughout the country still have lead pipes attached to drinking fountains.

Beyond lead, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” — have been detected in most states. PFAS are thought to be carcinogenic. And unlike the lead toxicity — which regulators have known about for decades — PFAS is a new game. The EPA just began planning how to regulate these chemicals. It recommends notifying customers when PFAS are detected at 70 parts per trillion. Most bottled water providers limit PFAS to 5 parts per trillion.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to these infrastructure problems. Congress still needs to address the problem in its last infrastructure package. It allocated just $55 billion to address all water infrastructure. The American Water Works Association estimated it would take $60 billion to address lead pipes alone.

Houston may be the largest water disaster of the year, but it is far from the only one. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends storing one gallon of bottled water per person per day for emergencies. Until authorities take America’s water woes seriously, being prepared is what families can do to manage an avoidable risk.

Madison Dibble is the communications director of the Center for Accountability in Science. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.


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