Opinion

Attacks on Clean Water Jeopardize the Health of Our Communities

Our health is directly linked to the environment in which we live, work and play. One of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century is clean drinking water. Safe, drinkable water keeps families healthy and empowers entire communities to thrive. Sadly, many communities in our country still face limited access to safe water at a time when protections designed to keep our water clean are under constant attack in Washington.

As public health professionals, we work every day to ensure that people, especially young children, have reliable access to clean water in their homes, schools and neighborhoods. We believe that our government leaders have an obligation to enact policies that limit the flow of harmful toxins in our water and safeguard public health. We are deeply concerned by the steps the Trump administration continues to take, weakening clean water standards and putting our communities at risk.

In 2017, the Trump administration announced its plans to repeal the Clean Water Rule, a 2015 regulation added under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Rule expanded the scope of bodies of water protected under the Clean Water Act, and imposed regulations to protect these water sources against contamination. The rule protected 1 in 3 Americans’ drinking water from contaminants such as bacteria, parasites and viruses, which often come from farm runoff, and animal and human waste. Exposure to water contaminated by these pathogens can cause vomiting, diarrhea and serious infections. Children, the elderly and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to harm from these exposures. For these groups, complications from waterborne illness can be deadly. They are also incredibly costly, with hospitalizations costing $970 million annually. Despite objections from public health experts, the Trump administration is working to undo these protections, and compromise the safety of our water.

The Trump administration’s recent federal budget proposal undermines public health standards, calling for significant reductions in funding for clean water programs. The proposal includes a 39 percent cut in funding for programs that protect our water against pollution and contamination, and a devastating $874 million cut to clean water infrastructure, which ensures the water in our homes and in our children’s schools is safe to drink.

For decades, public health experts have been sounding the alarm about lead in our children’s water, which can cause brain damage leading to compromised IQ and attention as well as behavioral problems, learning disabilities and developmental delays. We have been on the ground in areas like Flint, Mich., where entire communities are suffering from health complications associated with exposure to contaminated water. We have watched families hold great concern for their children, who may never reach their full potential, because their water quality was compromised. The consequences of contaminated water are far too real for too many families.

Still, the Trump administration is making it easier for polluters to contaminate our water.  Trump’s budget proposal also cuts funding for categorical grants to assist state clean water programs by 62 percent. States rely on these funds to provide us with safe water, and a massive cut like this one puts all of us, especially our children, in jeopardy.

It is undisputed that clean drinking water is a crucial element of public health, and vital to the healthy growth and development of our children. Despite knowing this, the Environmental Protection Agency is set on repealing existing clean water protections, and replacing them with a Dirty Water Rule that would leave more water sources vulnerable to toxic pollutants. When these crucial protections are ripped away, it is often low-income communities with poorer infrastructure and communities of color that suffer the most.

We expect our elected leaders to prioritize families and children with policies that keep our water and environments safe. Responsible environmental health policies happen when public health experts and health professionals are brought to the table to weigh in on decisions. To remove science and health knowledge from that conversation, in favor of constituencies who benefit from weaker clean water standards, is a disservice to our kids and families, threatening the health and safety of future generations.

 

Nsedu Obot Witherspoon is the executive director for the Children’s Environmental Health Network. Katie Huffling is a nurse and executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

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