Water Insecurity in the United States

Dirty water spilling our of a glass jug
Dirty water spilling out of a large glass carboy on its side. Source: Ildar Sagdejev, creative commons.

Access to clean water and sanitation is rarely something we have to worry about here in the United States; it comes out of faucets and water fountains at a seemingly endless supply. However, in many parts of the world—including some areas of the United States—access to clean water and sanitation is a major issue and can affect more than just people’s physical health.

In 2010, the UN recognized access to safe water and sanitation as a human right, and the issue was included among the UN’s sustainable development goals in 2015. With the UN’s focus on clean water access, many developing countries have started making efforts to increase access. However, many developed countries, like the United States, have neglected to develop their rural areas, which leaves a significant portion of their population without clean water for drinking and sanitation purposes. In fact, their situations can be similar to situations in developing countries.

Many Americans would be surprised to know that in more rural areas, it’s often not uncommon for people to go without a sophisticated sewer and water system because the infrastructure has not yet been built. In Lowndes county in Alabama, a largely rural and agricultural area, less than one fifth of the population has a safe way to dispose of their sewage waste. This issue can cause the sewage to back up into their systems or to overflow to their backyards. Neither of these outcomes are ideal for promoting health.

The people that are mainly affected by water insecurity and a lack of clean water in the United States are those that are already disadvantaged; the higher your income, the more likely it is you will have complete and adequate plumbing. This leaves those that live in lower socioeconomic areas with lower performing schools and fewer resources more likely to experience issues like inadequate plumbing and lead-contaminated water.

The systems that have the most problems are the ones that serve rural communities. When a city has a sewer issue, more people are paying for the water, so the extra cost is distributed more widely. In a rural community, there are less people to distribute the cost across, so it’s harder to come by the money to update the sewer systems. Because smaller communities have a harder time paying for necessary repairs and upgrades, the residents in these areas have to choose between drinking contaminated water or paying for bottled water.

Another issue that arises is when communities have a city water system but lack the appropriate people to run it. Some areas have no one to run their systems, while other rural sewer systems are operated by volunteers. In Kanawha Falls, West Virginia, a resident was elected to clean the water, but failed to test and report the water, and the state threatened to arrest him. Scotts Mills, Oregon cannot afford to hire workers for the water system, so they rely on volunteers and community reports of smells to know when work needs to be done.

Because some systems don’t have the staff and infrastructure to test regularly, many don’t realize their water is contaminated until they experience an adverse health outcome. For example, in Kanawha Falls, cited 2 thousand times over ten years for not testing and reporting water quality, a man who had skull surgery got two infections from the contaminated water. He now has to keep his head covered when he showers.

These problems aren’t exclusively in rural areas; lower-income areas—typically those in minority communities—also experience these problems. The most famous example is the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, where 62.6% of the population is a racial or ethnic minority. At one point, the lead levels—caused by improperly treated water corroding pipes—were almost three times past being considered hazardous waste. While the lead contamination was discovered in 2015, Flint is still dealing with these issues today. The lead’s effect on the community of Flint was enormous: children came down with a rash and mysterious illness; experts believe that lead was responsible for 198 to 276 fetal deaths; and twice as many children were diagnosed with lead-poisoned blood than before.

Flint is not the only area that has experienced issues like this, and Flint is not the only community at risk. Using income information and housing age, Vox and the Washington State Department of Health created a map to show what areas are more susceptible to lead poisoning. They also take the potential of lead paint into account, but the map shows that the at-risk areas are mainly cities, especially those that used to be industrial areas. Looking at the cities I know—Birmingham and Chattanooga—I can tell the areas at the highest risk are those that have a large minority population.

Water insecurity affects people’s mental health as well. Those that have less access to clean water experience more emotional distress. One thing many people, especially in urban areas, count on is easy access to water from their taps. However, when that easy access turns out to be harmful, like it is in Flint, anxiety and worry can rise. Parents that unknowingly gave their children contaminated water may feel guilt even though they didn’t intentionally give their children toxic water. In Flint specifically, levels of fear and anxiety were at an all-time high following the news of the contamination. In 2016, there were reports of parents coming to the ER with water-related breakdowns; many were distressed over the health of their children.

In areas where there’s a lack of water altogether, people can face similar issues. A lack of access to water—whether it be a loss of water through drought or a lack of water to begin with—has been connected to decreased mental health. Those in areas that are water insecure may experience anxiety, water-related emotional distress, and insomnia, among other symptoms. Additionally, the effects of dehydration play a role in mental health. Dehydration has been linked to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Those facing water insecurity are more likely to become dehydrated, so these symptoms should not be taken likely.

Water insecurity and lack of clean water access disproportionately affect minorities and rural populations. This means these already disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience the adverse effects. Clean water access is considered a human right, but even here in the United States there are people suffering from a lack of clean water.

The Global Waste Trade

trash on Garbage Beach in Malaysia
Water Pollution with Trash Disposal of Waste at the Garbage Beach. Source: epSos.de, Creative Commons.

While the United States’ recycling numbers are nowhere near the highest, as a country, we continue to recycle more and more each year. Many people are able to send items for recycling from their home, which has made it easier for the average person to recycle. However, most people don’t know where their recycling is going after it leaves their house. Ideally, it goes to be sorted and then is sent to be recycled, but that is not always the case.

Before China’s foreign waste ban began in 2018, the United States sent over 70 percent of its plastic waste to China to be recycled, which China used to fuel its manufacturing sector. Because of the profit they made and their environmental regulations, they were able to cheaply take contaminated plastic and sort it. However, as China has moved away from manufacturing and sorting through contaminated plastic has become less profitable, they have less of a need for the recycling. Since they have stopped accepting foreign recyclables, recycling has become immensely harder for the countries who relied on China for a consistent way to affordably recycle plastic waste.

China bought so much of the United States’ recyclable waste that we never created the infrastructure to recycle all of the waste we create, so when China stopped accepting our recyclables, those in charge of recycling had to figure out where to send it. Much of this waste ends up in a landfill instead of going to a recycling plant.

Additionally, the Chinese recyclers needed to figure out what they were going to do after they would lose the majority of their business as well. Some liquidated their assets, hoping to make a final profit on decades of hard work, while others decided to take their services to other areas, often illegally. These illegal recyclers set up in countries where they are able to hire workers cheaply and can take contaminated shipments because the government can’t track their work like it can a recycling plant that is set up legally. This means they are able to pay more and still make a profit, which attracts countries like the United States and the UK.

Many countries in southeast Asia, like Malaysia, have been affected by schemes like this. When the US could no longer send their waste to China, we almost tripled our exports to Malaysia. With the growing market, many illegal recyclers have been able to fly under the radar. They edge out legal recycling plants by paying more for the recycling and taking highly contaminated plastics, about 70 percent of the which is unable to be recycled, is burned or discarded to pollute the nearby areas.

The increasing number of illegal recyclers is taking a toll on the environment and the people living near illegal recycling plants. Illegal recyclers don’t have to properly clean contaminated water sources, which can affect nearby villages water sources. While legal recyclers have to pay to properly dispose of unrecyclable plastic, illegal recyclers can dispose of the unrecyclable waste easily and cheaply by burning it. This releases toxic chemicals into the air, which can make people in nearby villages sick. In Jenjarom, Malaysia, residents “began suffering en masse from headaches, respiratory problems, skin allergies and other ailments.” Additionally, the fires that are meant to burn the plastic often are not monitored and can become uncontrollable very quickly. They are extremely difficult to extinguish and can be dangerous to firefighting crews as many don’t wear masks.

Even those that are set up legally have been found to not follow regulations. Within the first year of the Chinese plastic ban and Malaysia’s new government, over 100 recycling companies lost their permits to import plastic waste because they didn’t follow regulations. They were able to reapply for permits after three months.

Because of these issues, the top three importers of plastic waste—Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam—have temporarily banned plastic waste imports, and all three are also working towards a permanent plastic ban. Developed countries, such as the United States and the UK, will have to figure out how to properly dispose of their plastic waste in an environmentally friendly way.

The blame is not all on illegal recyclers; companies from developed countries, in an effort to save money, send contaminated plastics to illegal recyclers without vetting them. These exporters have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that is damaging our global ecosystem. The American citizens—along with citizens of other developed countries—believe their recyclables are being recycled, while instead they are being sent to illegal recyclers that are further damaging the environment.

The international waste trade cannot feasibly continue like this. Norway’s proposed solution was to add plastic waste to the Basel Convention, which would impose more regulations on its trade. Since being added to the Basel Convention in May of 2019, plastic waste could not be sent to countries that aren’t a part of the convention. This ensures that plastic is not being sent to countries that do not have the infrastructure to properly recycle or dispose of it. Additionally, it would add more transparency to the trade deals; citizens of the exporting countries would know where their recycling is going. One downside to adding plastic waste to the Basel Convention is that not every developed country that exports plastic waste is a part of it: most notably the United States.

Another solution proposed has been to transition from a linear economy to a circular economy. In a linear economy, which is what most countries are a part of, a material is made, used, and the disposed of. In a circular economy, materials go through a cycle, and as little as possible is disposed of. A transition such as this one would not be easy, but it might be necessary to maintain our level of consumption.

China’s plastic ban brought to light just how much plastic we use and discard—not only for the importing countries like Malaysia, but also for the exporting countries. Part of the problem is our level of consumption, but another huge issue is the lack of transparency surrounding how our plastic is recycled. It is not enough to place our plastic waste in a recycling bin and expect it to be recycled; as consumers of plastic waste, we must demand that those exporting our recyclables are being honest about where it’s going.

The Rainforest is Burning: Fires in the Amazon

Trees in a swamp in the Amazon rain forest.
Swamp in Amazon rainforest. Source: Ivan Mlinaric, Creative Commons

On August 19, 2019, the sky of São Paulo, Brazil was turned black from smoke, bringing an abrupt awareness to a serious problem in the Amazon: it’s burning.  During the first eight months of this year, upwards of 74,000 fires were found burning in Brazil, most of which were in the Amazon and/or on agricultural land.  This was an 84% increase in the number of fires found during the same period in 2018, and the highest number found at one time in Brazil since 2010.  In August, the G7 (Group of Seven) held a summit to discuss issue related to climate change, biodiversity, and the oceans, where the countries involved agreed to give support and $20 million in response to the devastation in the Amazon.  Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, refused this offer, claiming that the country’s sovereignty was being the threatened. 

Why is this happening? 

There are a few different factors that have been attributed to causing the fires.  One is that some number of fires is normal, especially during this time of year, as it is a dry season.  Most of the fires are not naturally occurring, though.  Brazilian journalist Silio Boccanera says that many of the local people feel comfortable setting fires as they wish, as the government has not made efforts to prevent it. 

President Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon because he sees it as place for development.  Because of this, his administration has not framed the preservation of the rainforest as being particularly important, making groups who want to clear land for farming do exactly that.  Boccanera believes that this, in combination with the expected fires of the dry season, has been the main cause.    

According to Mikaela Weisse from the World Resources Institute, cattle grazers and soybean growers are the main two groups who are clearing the rainforest due to economic interests.  Mining, timber, and development firms are also growing in the area as a result of Bolsonaro’s position on the rainforest.  Confirmation of the fact that humans have caused most of the fires comes from satellite photos showing “special pattern where we see a lot of fire hot-spots clustered around roads, agriculture and pasture areas that have already been cleared.” 

The Impact of the Fires on the Environment  

The increase of fires has had (and will continue to have) a serious impact on the natural world.  So far, 228 megatons of carbon dioxide have been released due to the fireswhich absorbs heat and contributes to climate change. 

There is also great reason to be concerned for the long-term well-being of the Amazon itself.  As a tropical rainforest, it has high levels of humidity and is not fire-adapted, meaning its vegetation does not have the special traits that the plants of drier climates have developed in order to survive or even thrive when fire is present.  According to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, it takes around 20 to 40 years to regenerate after a fire (assuming it has the chance to regenerate before a new fire begins).  However, any fires that do occur leave the surviving trees more vulnerable to drought and new fires than they were before.  Multiple fires every few years mean more long-term, permanent damage, potentially shifting large parts of the Amazon to a “degraded shrubby state.” 

As of August, 80% of the Amazon remained intact, but Malhi is concerned about how the combination of deforestation and climate change will impact the situation.  Due to the reduced rainfall leading to a drier climate, fires would be more likely to spread.  As Malhi points out: “If 30-40% of the Amazon was cleared, then there would be a danger of changing the forest’s entire climate,” which is hard to think about.  He does, however, also say that we are at an early stage in the situation, and that there is still enough to work to save the rainforest. 

Clearing Up Some Misinformation 

One claim that has been seen numerous social media sites is that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of Earth’s oxygen.  According the BBC’s Reality Check, academics believe that the number is actually less than 10%.  Professor Malhi points out that a large part percentage of oxygen is produced by plankton and that, of the oxygen that is produced by plants on land, only 16% is produced by the Amazon.   

Even if the Amazon produced a full 20% of oxygen, this is still a misleading claim, because the Amazon absorbs close to the same amount of oxygen as it produces, “effectively making the total produced net-zero.”  The plants of the rainforest must reabsorb about half of the oxygen they produce to perform respiration and grow, and the soil, animals, and microbes also use some of it. 

This is not to suggest that saving the Amazon rainforest is not an important issue (because it certainly is)rather, it is to clear up some misinformation.  People have been known to point to misinformation as an argument against the importance of an issue, so it is important to address it when it is being spread.   

An area of the Amazon rain forest where trees have been cut down and burned.
Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Source: Matt Zimmerman, Creative Commons

The Impact of Fires and Deforestation on Indigenous Peoples 

The deforestation of the Amazon has a severe negative impact on the indigenous people of Brazil.  Indigenous tribes rely on the rainforest in nearly every part of their lives, from food to clothes to medicine.  It is also an important part of their identity as a people.  Jonathan Mozower from Survival International says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of these forests for indigenous peoples.”  The fires that are burning in the Amazon are eating away at the resources that are the foundation of their livelihoods.   

According to Mozower, this is “the worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” since the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s.  In just a single week in August, there were 68 fires found and registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas. 

The indigenous people of the area are also being harmed by the fires’ impact on the rainforest’s biodiversity.  The Amazon rainforest contains the most diverse range of living things in the world.  For example, it is home to over 3,000 species of fish, and there are hundreds more that have not yet been discovered.  The diversity of the forest is what allows the life there to thrive, with different species depending on one another, such as fish helping to spread the seeds of trees.  The loss of some species leads to the loss of others, causing the rate of biodiversity loss to increase over time. 

As the Amazon loses more and more biodiversity, the indigenous people who live there lose more of their resources. 

This Is a Human Rights Issue 

According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.  This is also affirmed by Article 7 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.”  

DRIP also addresses many aspects of the land and resources that indigenous peoples depend on (like in the Amazon rainforest).  Article 8 states that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for actions that deprive them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of cultural values or ethnic identities and any action that tries or succeeds at taking away their land or resources.  Article 26 identifies indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands and resources they have traditionally possessed, to own, use, develop, and control these lands and resources, and to have “legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources” by the states they live in.  Article 29 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.  Articles 30 says that governments should consult the indigenous people who live in the area before using their territories. 

The impacts of the fires and deforestation of the Amazon impede indigenous people’s access to these rights and must be dealt with. 

What Can We Do? 

When faced with the facts of the situation in Amazon, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future.  Here are some things that you can personally do to help. 

Donations 

One option is to donate to organizations aimed at fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and supporting the people who are impacted by it.  Survival International takes donations in order to fund their efforts to pressure the Brazilian government to keep loggers out of the rainforest in support of the Awá people.  The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs aims specifically to help makes sure that the voices of indigenous people are heard. 

Rainforest Safe Products 

You can also try to only by products that are deemed “rainforest safe”.  Products that are “Rainforest Alliance Certified” come from “farms that passed audits and met standards for sustainability”.  Some goods that might have the seal for this certification include coffee, bananas, and chocolate.  Products that are made with wood can be “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)” certified, meaning the wood used did not come from illegal logging and deforestation. 

Sustainable Living 

Another great option is to try to live a more sustainable life overall.  One of the best things that you can do is adopt a plant-based (vegan) diet or at least cut down on your consumption of animal products.  As it was previously mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the clearing of the Amazon is cattle grazing and the farming of soybeans (which are mostly used to feed livestock).  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Brazil is world’s largest beef exporter, “providing close to 20 percent of total global beef exports.  In 2017, the United States was the sixth largest importer of Brazilian beef, buying $295 million dollars’ worth According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the United States imported 140.9 million pounds Brazilian beef in 2019.   

Cutting down on the consumption of animal products is also a great way to live more sustainably, as 42% of the United States’ agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture and “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide. 

It main seem difficult, but it is possible for to make a difference as ordinary people. 

Dr. Robert Bullard: Health Equity through Environmental, Economic and Racial Justice

a photo of Robert Bullard speaking to a crowd
Dr. Robert Bullard. Photo by UAB IHR.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.

Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.

EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.

Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.