Beyond the Flint tragedy: Contaminated drinking water is everywhere in America

Agricultural runoff is poorly regulated and turning many waterways across the country into dangerous cesspools

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, became a national news story, and for good reason. Political leaders in the state were finally forced to take steps to stop the poisoning of Flint’s drinking water with lead and other toxins, foisted on the community as part of a short-sighted cost-cutting measure. Despite improvements, the future of Flint’s water supply is uncertain, but at least that story has brought increased attention to the problem of lead in water in many large cities, including Chicago.

The grim reality, however, is that the problems with American drinking water are diverse and widespread, even if most aren’t quite as severe as what happened in Flint. Agricultural waste in particular is poisoning water, especially in rural areas, creating a myriad of health risks. Current government policy remains poorly equipped to deal with this issue.

This week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) highlighted what it says is a growing problem of toxic algal bloomsaffecting the nation’s water supply. These blooms are a soupy, green growth on waterways composed of cyanobacteria, which look like algae but are actually a different microorganism. That distinction is important because, as the EPA notes, cyanobacteria create toxins that are carcinogenic and linked to damage in the liver, kidneys and reproductive systems. They can also kill fish and pets. (Regular algae can cause problems but is not nearly as dangerous.)

In 2014, residents of Toledo, Ohio, lost their drinking water for days when the blooms in Lake Erie grew out of control. But no government agency regularly keeps track of this problem, so EWG tried to generate data by tracking news coverage and satellite imagery. Their researchers found 169 reports of toxic blooms in 2017. One reason these blooms are getting so bad is that levels of phosphorus, which works as a fertilizer for the blooms, are becoming extremely high in these waterways.

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