The fallout from the ongoing coronavirus crisis has brought a few issues into sharp focus, including a number of structural problems in place across the globe with regard to the availability of and access to clean water. At present, one-third of the global population cannot reach a safe source of drinking water, while over half are without basic sanitation services.
The issue is an especially pertinent one right now, given the importance of basic hygiene in combating COVID-19 and limiting its spread. However, it’s far from being a problem confined to the developing world; 21 million Americans – or approximately 6% of the U.S. population – are drinking water from sources deemed unsanitary by the country’s own health authorities. With BIPOC Americans significantly more likely to be exposed to such dangers than their white counterparts, it’s high time that the government took concrete measures to improve its water infrastructure and ensure that all its citizens, regardless of skin color, enjoy access to safe and affordable water.
The corona Catch-22
Due to the fact that a significant percentage of the American people are using water that has breached, in one way or another, the Safe Drinking Water Act, they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Government regulations advise that adequate hygiene – epitomized by regular handwashing for 20 seconds or more – is the best way to protect against the virus. The paradox, however, is that in so doing, people could be coming into contact with all manner of other toxic elements.
Lead concentrations are dangerously high in households across the country, while a recent report found that contamination of water supplies with perfluoroalkyl substances – also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” so named for their ability to stubbornly persist in the environment – are far higher than previously believed. A 2018 study of 44 samples from 31 states found only one of them to be free from PFAS altogether, while only two more showed concentrations of the chemicals that were within the official thresholds recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Even more concerningly, an independent review concluded that those limits were already 10 times too high, bringing into stark focus the long road ahead to get the U.S. water systems up to scratch.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the issue tenfold. Bottled water provides a lifeline for these communities without safe and dependable running water—but the logistics of purchasing it have become more complicated amidst the outbreak, as some stores imposed limits on how many bottles a household could purchase. This is particularly problematic amidst concerns that the virus could even be spread through unclean water, as a…