Which Communities Experience the Most Drinking Water Violations?
The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, shed light on an unfortunate truth in American society—access to safe and reliable drinking water is not guaranteed for everyone. Several local studies have found that communities of color and people with low incomes are disproportionately affected by drinking water violations. In Flint, for example, the neighborhood with the most lead-contaminated water and elevated blood lead levels among children was also the neighborhood with highest proportion of black children. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets national health standards and regulates the distribution and provision of drinking water by private and public water systems, disparities persist across the country. To understand the prevalence of these inequities at a national scale, this study assessed how the likelihood of initial and repeat drinking water violations differs based on the demographic characteristics of the county in which they occur.
Using data from the EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System and EPA Environfacts, researchers analyzed initial and repeat drinking water violations among 59,595 public water systems at the county level between 2011 and 2015. The study focused on violations associated with well-studied contaminants like arsenic, lead, and uranium. Comparing the violations to county-level demographic data, researchers analyzed the prevalence of drinking water violations based on race and ethnicity, education level, median income, health insurance coverage, housing status, and size of the population served by the water system. The researchers conducted an initial analysis of aggregated data at a national scale, followed by a stratified analysis that broke down the data by the size of the water system, from very small systems serving 3,300 residents or less to large systems serving 50,000 residents or more.
- In general, drinking water violations were more common among systems serving more residents of color, residents with lower incomes, and residents without health insurance.
- Counties with a higher proportion of uninsured residents were more likely to have initial and repeat drinking water violations. For example, a 1-percentage-point increase in the proportion of those uninsured within a county increased the odds of having an initial violation by 77 percent. These findings remained consistent across very small, small, medium, and large water systems.
- Among large water systems, counties with higher proportions of people of color were more likely to have both initial and repeat drinking water violations. A 1-percentage-point increase in the share of Hispanic people within a county increased the odds of having an initial violation by 379 percent and a repeat violation by 440 percent.
- Counties with higher median incomes were less likely to have drinking water violations, except for counties served by medium water systems, which had a higher likelihood of repeat violations.
- Among small and medium water systems, counties with higher proportions of single female–headed households were more likely to have initial drinking water violations. A 1-percentage-point increase in the share of single female–headed households in small water systems increased the odds of an initial violation by over 250 percent.
- Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the proportion of residents with less than a high school education decreased the odds of initial violations among small, medium, and large water systems.
The How Housing Matters editorial team decided to use the term “Hispanic” to refer to people of Latin American origin, in alignment with the terminology used by the authors of the study. We recognize that the term “Latinx” is more inclusive of the way this group may self-identify. How Housing Matters strives to avoid language that is exclusive and will always attempt to explain the editorial rationale behind the labeling of certain groups.
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