By Olya Egorov, Water Policy Intern
When a community finds lead in their water, what do officials do next? Often, they turn to personal water filtration systems. In the last thirty years, our country has seen a shift towards personal, household water filtration systems in times of water crises, but also as a standard in many households even in cases where water is safe to drink. According to Douglas R. Oberhamer of the new Water Quality Improvement Standards and Certification Council, “it wasn’t until a water scare in New Orleans in December 1974 that consumers became really concerned about their tap water.” Over the years, American households have turned to personal filtration systems more and more. While such water filtration systems can be used in the midst of a water crisis as a temporary solution, there is a growing mistrust in our water systems that must also be addressed. And in the case of lead contamination, there is a clear solution.
Household water filtration systems can be as extensive as the Rhino Whole House Well Water Filter that has a high-price tag of approximately $2,000, or as simple as a Brita filter that you attach to your faucet. On average, a Brita-like filtration system costs approximately $15-20 USD and can be purchased in most commercial stores in-person or online. Unlike the Rhino Water Filter that has a lifespan of five years, the filter in a Brita must be replaced every two months. A pack of three Brita filters costs roughly $15.
As a college student, I live in a five-person household which has three water filters to support the drinking water needs in our home. The City of Davis, California where I live, however, is not known to have lead pipes and has not had any other contaminant exceedances in recent years. Yet, our household continues to utilize the filters as a primary source of drinking water. Similarly, several schools have also placed water filter stands on their campuses despite having safe, drinkable water available to students. The notion of establishing these filters in homes and in schools is a “precautionary” measure; however, it could perhaps also illustrate the ingrained mistrust that residents have in water systems.
In some cases, though, personal water filters are essential to providing residents with clean drinking water. In Chicago, the community known as Little Village has had a number of construction projects, potentially disturbing lead service lines. In 2020, just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was also an implosion of the Crawford Coal Plant, which not only disturbed the sea of lead pipes in the area, but also coated the community in a cloud of dust. Based on EPA research, the disturbance of lead pipes (often due to construction and presumably in the 2020 implosion event in Chicago) can result in elevated lead levels and ultimately pose the threat of lead poisoning in all age groups, even if water is flushed thoroughly. The implosion sparked the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), a community-based nonprofit, to respond by distributing bottled water during the early months of summer along with multilingual posters that explained the dangers of lead in drinking water. In October 2020, LVEJO began with a second distribution of bottled water, along with Zero water filters. The city assisted with testing and found that the lead pipes may not have been directly disturbed by the implosion, yet there was a secondary concern with the malposition of valves that changed the taste, smell, and appearance of residents’ tap water. LVEJO staff viewed the water filters they were distributing as a temporary, short-term solution, and they hope to see a more long-term solution implemented by local officials, including the removal of all lead pipes in the community on both the public and customer-owned service lines. The organization I currently intern for, Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), is hoping to help small municipalities remove their lead service lines altogether and has launched a Lead-Free Water Challenge.
This water crisis in Little Village in Chicago illustrates how important it is to identify and attempt to address the root causes of water contamination rather than rely solely on personal and household filtration systems. While personalized water filtration systems should and can be used in water crises to ensure the safety of residents, they should not be used as a long-term solution to resolving a contamination problem in a community. Instead, resources and funding should be directed toward the long-term solution, such as the full replacement of a lead service line.
The increased use of personal water filters in homes and schools also reflects an underlying mistrust of water systems in the United States. Some projects are working to address the public mistrust in water by redesigning the confusing Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs) that the average resident is unable to decipher, including a Water Data Prize by EPIC. In light of the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, there is hope that public trust will increase through the widespread replacement of outdated water infrastructure - which should also improve drinking water for people across the country and eliminate the need for widespread use of personal and household water filters.