Ten years after the state of California recognized the human right to water, hundreds of thousands of residents still rely on drinking water that contains dangerous levels of contaminants, including the highly toxic mineral arsenic. Many of them live in low-income and rural communities that struggle to afford the infrastructure necessary to remove arsenic from drinking water.
A new study led by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Virginia Tech is among the first to analyze how inmates in California may be affected by arsenic-contaminated water.
The study, which will appear online Sept. 21 in the journal Environmental health perspectives, analyzed 20 years of water quality data from Kern Valley State Prison and the nearby Central Valley communities of Allensworth, McFarland and Delano, where many aquifers contain unhealthy levels of naturally occurring arsenic. At all four sites, the study found instances where arsenic levels in the water supply exceeded legal limits for months or even years at a time.
“There has been a lot of work, mainly by journalists and inmates themselves, that points to serious environmental health hazards in prisons, yet there have been very few studies of these environmental health challenges,” he said. first author Jenny Rempel, principal investigator. a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. “This is one of the few studies to document the ongoing structural challenges to realize this fundamental human right to water on both sides of prison walls.”
Long-term exposure to even small amounts of arsenic in drinking water has been linked to various cancers and other serious health problems. In 2001, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the maximum contaminant level for arsenic from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. The stricter standard came into effect at the beginning of 2006.
“We conducted this study in part to try to better understand how disaggregated water quality data can be used to identify potential historical exposures to drinking water contaminants in confined and unconfined populations sharing similar groundwater,” said senior author Alasdair Cohen of the study. research. an assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in Virginia Tech’s Division of Population Health Sciences.
The study found that arsenic levels above 10 ppb were common in all four communities over the past two decades, sometimes even after the community received government funding for arsenic cleanup. In some cases, arsenic levels exceeding the 10 ppb limit were not officially violated by the California Division of Drinking Water.
“While all four communities met the federal arsenic standard at the end of our study period, we found ongoing water injustices that transcended carceral boundaries,” Rempel said.
Water injustices persist in prisons and low-income communities
Although Kern Valley State Prison opened in 2005, the facility was initially built with no plans for arsenic remediation. According to the study, average prison arsenic levels hovered around 20 ppb until the completion of a $6 million water purification system in 2013. 2017 and 2019.
“To our knowledge, Kern Valley State Prison was built with no plans for arsenic remediation, although some early water quality data suggested that the system would soon cease to meet the new arsenic standard,” Rempel said. “That meant thousands of people were probably drinking contaminated water until the treatment plant came online.”
Residents of the surrounding communities may choose to drink bottled water or install water filtration systems in their homes to protect themselves from contaminants. However, many low-income households cannot afford to take these precautions, and small, low-income communities have often been denied the resources needed to both build and maintain effective water treatment facilities.
A recent study shows that this pattern — where rural and low-income communities are less likely to have access to safe drinking water — extends across the country. Some of the underlying causes, such as historic divestments and regulatory failures, are also contributing to the water crises in urban areas such as Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan. Many of the communities without access to safe drinking water are also communities of color.
“Because funding for water treatment and supply and maintenance in the U.S. is expected to come primarily from residents, water treatment companies in lower-income rural areas are more likely to fail,” said Cohen, who began the research project as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. “This is one of the reasons people living in lower-income rural communities in the U.S. generally have a disproportionately higher exposure to contaminated drinking water, and why, when some systems fail to comply with EPA regulations, they do. can stay for a while.” .”
The study found that drinking water in Delano, the largest of the communities in the study, with a population of more than 50,000, has almost never exceeded 10 ppb of arsenic since 2013, following the construction of new wells and arsenic treatment plants. . However, much smaller McFarland, with a population of about 12,000, has had occasional instances where arsenic levels exceeded 10 ppb, despite the addition of a new water treatment system. However, the system currently complies with the arsenic standards as the standards are calculated as a running annual average.
“Delano has received significantly more funding than any other system in the study, and they haven’t had a single post-treatment sample above that 10 ppb threshold,” Rempel said.
Meanwhile, the small community of Allensworth, with only about 600 residents, does not yet have a treatment facility. The city relies on water mixed from two wells to bring average arsenic levels below 10 ppb, and the state subsidizes bottled water for the community when the water supply falls short.
Rempel says the findings highlight the need for new and ongoing support to ensure that water treatment plants in low-income communities can be effectively maintained and operated. New technologies for providing affordable, arsenic-safe water on a smaller scale can also ensure that everyone has access to clean drinking water.
“California has increased its investments in drinking water solutions for low-income communities,” Rempel said, “But to really deliver on the promise of the human right to water, we need to put in place adequate technical assistance and other creative approaches to ensure that communities are able to successfully exploit long-term treatment systems.”
Additional co-authors of the study are Isha Ray, Ethan Hessl, Zehui Zhou, Shin Kim, Xuan Zhang, Chiyu Ding and Ziyi He of UC Berkeley; and Jasmine Vazin and David Pellow of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Southwestern Correctional Institutions’ drinking water endangers inmates’ health
The human right to water: a 20-year comparative analysis of arsenic in rural and carceral drinking water systems in California, Environmental health perspectives (2022). DOI: 10.1289/EHP10758
Provided by University of California – Berkeley
Quote: Study finds potentially dangerous levels of arsenic in drinking water at California prison (2022, Sept. 21) retrieved Sept. 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-potentially-dangerous-arsenic-california-prison .html
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