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Every American deserves clean drinking water and working sewer systems


A rare glimpse of bipartisanship was seen in Washington this week as U.S. Senate Democrats and Republicans worked together to advance the long-anticipated infrastructure bill. The debate over how the legislation’s proposed $1 trillion will be allocated will no doubt continue as the bill moves to the U.S. House. But there should be no question over the need to dedicate a meaningful portion of those resources to fix a glaring failure of our nation’s infrastructure that today impacts the safety and health of millions across the nation: unclean drinking water and inadequate sewage systems.

Right now, there are regions in America where residents, especially communities of color, either live in a daily struggle to access clean water or must endure unsafe living conditions due to insufficient sewer infrastructure. Decades of government neglect have left residents of Lowndes County, Ala., in a permanent state of fear, where on rainy days — which have increased in frequency due to climate change — foul effluent backflows into sinks and bathtubs. Hookworm, commonly found in undeveloped countries, has been detected among the local population. We live in a time where we can video chat with someone on the other side of the world, yet residents of Jackson, Miss., and McDowell County, W.Va., have had to face questions over the safety of their local drinking water. In the Navajo Nation, over 30 percent must haul water to their homes to live.

This is not just a rural issue. In metropolitan areas, crumbling water pipes are causing dangerous safety conditions. Lead continues to be detected in water supplies in Chicago and Denver. And of course, there’s Flint, Mich. — an area that’s still working to replace its water pipes following the lead-tainted water crisis that began in 2014, where more than 50,000 people claimed they were harmed.

This is a major public health problem. In 2014, 7.15 million waterborne illnesses were reported, resulting in over 600,000 emergency department visits and 118,000 hospitalizations across the country. Over 6,600 Americans died from waterborne diseases that year alone.

Americans deserve a commitment from Congress to provide states with sufficient resources to modernize our water and sewer infrastructure systems. We need innovative approaches to upgrade infrastructure to protect the health of all citizens, and we need them now. Proven materials must be evaluated on the merits to improve these systems, which isn’t always the case in select regions where bidding practices exclude certain ones from consideration.

Can we not agree that every American has the right to access clean water? It is too much to ask or expect of our government to take the necessary steps to support the 2 million Americans that currently lack access to basic plumbing and clean water?

This shouldn’t be fair game for political debate. The fact these problems exist today should shock our 21st century souls. These aren’t simply public health matters: Access to clean water impacts every aspect of our lives. No household should be without clean running water or be at risk of unsanitary living conditions from dilapidated municipal sewer systems. To look the other way and pretend these problems don’t exist is inhumane.

We need a basic standard for water quality in America. And with the infrastructure debate now in full swing, this is the time to invest in improving our water and sewer network.    

The American Families Plan intends to address these problems. It seeks to eliminate lead pipelines, deliver clean drinking water to 10 million U.S. families — and hundreds of thousands of schools and child care facilities that currently don’t have it — and improve wastewater systems across the country. These provisions cannot land on the cutting room floor as Democrats and Republicans negotiate the details of the final legislative package.

Our taps don’t care if we’re Republican or Democrat. Members of Congress can show they care about the health and wellbeing of America by continuing the current spirit of bipartisanship to make clean drinking water a right for all.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. 

Tags clean water Infrastructure infrastructure deal lead in water lead pipes Safe Drinking Water Sewage systems water contamination

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