Is There a Water Crisis Impacting Black and Brown America?

There is a growing water crisis spreading across American cities in communities with high Black populations. The clean water supply in Flint, MI, Baltimore, MD, Jackson, MS and Chicago, IL has been called into question because of the level of lead and bacteria in the water.

In 2014, residents of Flint, MI – a city that is 54% Black – began to complain about the taste, color and smell of their water after the city changed its supply from treated Detroit water to water sourced by the Flint River. City leaders failed to respond to these complaints and did not take the proper steps to treat corroded pipes which exposed over 100,000 Flint residents to high levels of lead via their drinking water. Two years later, on January 5, 2016, Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI) declared a State of Emergency in response to the water situation in Flint. Following this state emergency declaration, President Obama declared a federal state emergency to drive resources to help the people of Flint.

Recently, in Jackson, MS and Baltimore, MD there have been widespread concerns about water contamination. In August 2022, after a local river flooded, residents living in Jackson, MS started receiving brown water through their home piping systems. The river flooding caused the Jackson water treatment facility to fail – an especially problematic development, as the O. B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant had already been experiencing breakdowns that needed to be repaired a month prior. This left 150,000 people without clean drinking water, which sparked a national movement to deliver water to Jackson, similar to the community organizing and activism that supported Flint during their water crisis.

We should be having a larger conversation about environmental racism and the U.S. infrastructure system, which is in need of major revitalization. In response to the Jackson water crisis, President Biden declared the situation a federal emergency in order to deliver federal aid to Jacksonians. National civil rights organizations are calling on us to take action against infrastructure neglect in highly populated areas. Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP stated that “[The water] crisis is the direct result of the failures of politicians who have put party and politics over the issues that will help people in communities like Jackson, Mississippi, Flint, Michigan, and the many other majority Black cities that have been left behind for too long. We need elected officials who will put people over politics and will address issues that impact Black communities.” His words could not be more accurate or relevant, as we continue to observe Black communities’ water supplies being negatively impacted.

On September 5, 2022, residents of Baltimore, MD were placed under a boil water advisory after reports of water contamination surfaced. This water advisory came as a result of one of Baltimore’s 90 unique water sampling locations tested positive for E.Coli. The bacteria was an indication that the water was contaminated with human or animal waste. E. Coli can cause short-term effects, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms – and can even be deadly to infant children. The Baltimore boil water order was lifted days later on September 9, 2022, after city engineers conducted assessments on the water distribution centers, treatment systems and pumping stations. Even with the all-clear, this emergency has contributed to the larger conversation on the water supply in Black communities.

A recent report by The Guardian is shedding new light on the shocking level of lead that is present in Chicago’s water supply. Chicago’s Water Management Department (CWMD) conducted a study of 24,000 homes and found lead exceeding federal limits in 1,000 homes. This alarming fact prompted journalists at The Guardian to pursue a fact finding mission which uncovered the disparities for folks living in Black and brown Chicago neighborhoods. According to Eric McCormick, “The real danger about lead is whether or not you have lead pipes. And lead pipes are ubiquitous in old homes. So they tend to be in the neighborhoods where more Black and brown residents live in old homes and thus have these old, maybe 100-year-old pipes.”

The City of Chicago currently has a plan to replace all lead pipes over the next 50 years, which is much longer than it will take for the rest of the state to replace lead pipes. Experts have noted that we would not be aware of these lead levels had CWMD not conducted their study. The Guardian warns us that the City of Chicago is not moving fast enough to remove dangerous lead pipes – and that anyone with young children in America should definitely be getting their child tested for lead. The report also highlights the fact that 9 of the 10 neighborhoods in Chicago with the highest levels of lead are Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. This is incredibly alarming, especially since children are particularly at risk from the long-term effects of lead poisoning, which can impact their ability to learn and later increases their chances of being afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

To the question posed in the title of this article, the answer is resoundingly “Yes”. It is very clear that there is a water crisis impacting Black and brown people in large American cities. And the real emergency is that we don’t know for certain how many people are impacted by lead in their water supply as we don’t have data sets similar to the Chicago study from other cities. Our system needs a complete overhaul and our leaders need to act more swiftly to address this increasingly urgent situation – because every sip of water that a child takes in some American cities is one sip closer to potentially developing permanent, cognitive disabilities.



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