Last month there was a health scare at the unlikeliest of places: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The CDC announced to employees it was closing some of its office space after Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires Disease (a form of pneumonia), was discovered in water sources at a building.
The bacteria can grow in water left stagnant — something that has happened to many facilities as offices and schools have been idled because of COVID-19.
As Americans venture back to the office, the coronavirus won’t be the only thing we should test for. Water contamination is a pertinent public health issue — not just due to coronavirus but to longstanding deficiencies in our water systems.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group released a new study revealing that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were found in more localities and in higher quantities than previously believed.
According to the EPA, PFAS can lead to adverse health effects if consumed in large enough doses. This group of chemicals, which are used to make things water- and oil-resistant, are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t leave your body.
But PFAS aren’t the only tap-water turn-offs.
In 2015, 77 million Americans were serviced by a water system that had at least one violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey water systems are two prominent examples that made national media.
In Texas, the contamination of the town of Brady’s water system with radium, a carcinogen, is another example. (The EWG has determined that more than 170 million people nationwide are exposed to radium in their drinking water, thus increasing the risk of cancer.) According to EWG’s Tap Water Database, about 26 million Texans have water providers that have chemicals that exceed health guidelines. One of the contaminants most commonly found is arsenic.
Even without contamination, our water supply has risks. Texas is filled with small towns where a single broken pipe can spell disaster for the whole community. In East Texas, two towns — only a hundred miles or so apart — have been under boil water advisories in a two-week time span.
Contaminated tap water is a serious issue with few quick fixes — even before COVID-19 complicated matters. But as we continue to reopen, adjustments to our previous water-related habits will have to be made to ensure safety guidelines are met.
In offices and schools, water fountains could serve as a viral hotbed and will need to be in short-term disuse. Even Friday night football will look a bit different. Aside from socially distancing in the stands and wearing masks, we’ll also have to make sure high school athletes have individual water bottles and avoid the communal water cooler.
Fortunately, it’s an issue easily solved by bottled water in the short term, both at home and the office. According to a recent survey done by DisasterChecklist.org, 78 percent of Americans didn’t have enough water and/or canned goods at the start of quarantine to adequately meet their needs. If the pandemic wasn’t a wakeup call to buy supplies for clean water, then our continual water contamination issues should be.
The fact that so many of our commercial areas are under quarantine may provide a silver lining. Just as the coronavirus has allowed for states to complete transportation infrastructure projects, it’s also an opportunity to dig into aging water systems that were built decades ago and improve our infrastructure for years to come.
Joe Perrone is a former advisor to the World Health Organization and former Vice President for Business Development and Technology Transfer at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.
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