The water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, threw a national spotlight on problems with drinking water systems that extend far beyond one state and that are more profound than just pipes. A central failure in Flint was that the state government had information about contamination of drinking water, but did not warn the public. In Texas, the pollutant of greatest concern in the 65 communites discussed in this report is different – arsenic, instead of lead -- and the source of the problem is different. In Texas, the arsenic is naturally occurring; while in Michigan, the catastrophe was man-made, with the state and city trying to save money by switching to a source of water, the Flint River, that corroded the plumbing, releasing high levels of lead from pipes and solder.
But in both Michigan and Texas, the state governments compounded the water contamination problems – and allowed people's exposure to damaging toxins to continue -- by not communicating clearly with consumers.
Deciding how best to explain health risks to the public is admittedly a challenging task. But there is enough evidence to reach the following conclusions:
- Texas should update the language in its public notices so consumers clearly know when to safeguard their health by avoiding contaminated drinking water. Citizens should be told to find alternative drinking water sources, especially when children may be exposed and when arsenic contamination has persisted for a long period of time.
- EPA is currently conducting a new review of arsenic toxicity, and it should conclude that work and revise its mandatory language for public notice of arsenic violations. This mandatory language should include a statement about the potential health risks of childhood exposure.
- Public notices should inform consumers of options for treating contaminated water at home, e.g., through filter systems that have proven to be effective. Conversely, the public should be told what doesn't work. For example, while Texas advisories warn that boiling water won't reduce nitrate concentrations, it includes no such warning for arsenic, which also cannot be boiled away.
- Both EPA and Texas should provide more financial and technical assistance to local governments and utilities to help them fix long-standing drinking water violations in rural and disadvantaged communities.
The short-term costs of building municipal water treatment systems can be significant, but they are dwarfed by the long-term costs of higher cancer risks and brain damage. More broadly, our whole system pays a high price when silence or double-talk corrodes the basic faith of citizens in their government.