The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Advancing a new sustainable infrastructure paradigm and practice in the Northwest and beyond

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Aging Water Infrastructure and Public Health

June 12th, 2018 · No Comments · Water

By Emily Walsh — Community Outreach Director, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Maintaining the quality of our water supplies has always been a pressing issue. From the start of the industrial age, filtering out pollutants and testing drinking water has become a necessary step when supplying water to communities. However, contamination as a result of aging water infrastructure can bring toxins into our homes through our sinks and faucets. The concern generated from this contamination affirms that we often take the safety of our drinking water for granted.

With 19th century urbanization came water pollution and an overall sanitation crisis, including the spread of diseases like dysentery and cholera. Eventually, civilizations deduced that wastewater and drinking water must be kept separate. The introduction of indoor plumbing and running water dates back to the late 1800s, which included the installation of distribution piping and disinfecting supplies with chlorine. Today’s modern water system saw its emergence in the 1910s in major cities like Chicago and New York, but it wasn’t until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 that wastewater began being treated.

Water systems have been handled on a repair, rather than replacement, basis in the United States since their initial implementation. Millions of miles of underground pipes stretch across the country, with many now reaching or exceeding their useful lifetimes. It is estimated that there are an average of 240,000 water main breaks annually throughout the U.S, leaking more than 2 trillion gallons of drinking water. This breakage is not only a waste of usable water, but creates the potential for hazardous water contamination.

Toxins in Water

The danger of aging infrastructure lies in the makeup of the pipes. Many water distribution systems were constructed when materials like lead, copper, and asbestos were king, before their harmful effects were made known. As the pipes corrode and decay, potentially high levels of these toxins enter into water supplies. Consuming tainted drinking water, depending on the type of contaminants present, may result in conditions ranging from rashes and digestive system issues to cancer. For instance, asbestos-cement pipes make up an estimated 15% of the United State’s water distribution systems. An increase of carcinogenic asbestos fibers released into drinking water may lead to serious conditions like mesothelioma cancer.

Under the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation, water providers are required to notify customers within 30 days of discovering water contamination. Leaking water from toxic pipe systems brings these substances into the natural water cycle. Additionally, hazardous waste from landfills or the nearby environment can leach chemicals into natural water sources like lakes and rivers. This not only harms the ecosystem, but also affects our drinking supply.

Failing infrastructure is especially concerning for lower income communities that may be unable to fund needed utility maintenance. In many cases, the use of materials like asbestos and lead have been banned or restricted for decades, but this fails to account for preexisting municipal pipes that have been an integral part of water systems for even longer. The lack of action to address drinking water contamination can be attributed to insufficient funding and a shortage of data about the full health risks.

The Importance of Funding

Legislation like the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) monitor the levels of more than 90 contaminants in drinking water supplies. The majority of utility maintenance spending comes from state and local governments, while the federal government contributes on average less than one percent. This has caused water investments to fall behind. As portions of these underground water pipelines reach upwards of 75-120 years old, it is becoming increasingly important to address the issue before infrastructure failure becomes even more of a widespread issue.

According to the American Water Works Association, at least $1 trillion will be needed to fund the restoration of water pipes over the next 25 years, not including the cost of replacing infrastructure or servicing treatment plants. Although the price of water has been increasing, its revenues do not meet the amount of spending needed for infrastructure maintenance. Additionally, water usage has been decreasing since 2000, making it harder for cash-strapped water utilities to receive adequate funding.

In order to work toward a sustainable solution, the U.S. will likely need to reform its policies to ensure quality water is available and accessible to everyone. It may take sizable investments to get there, but continuing to repair unsafe systems will ultimately come at a cost to public health. Innovation will likely be the key to upgrading and protecting our water systems, keeping our water clean for the foreseeable future.

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