A Thirst for Justice: The EPA’s Silent Oversight on Contaminated Water Exposure

While sipping on a glass of water, few of us question its safety. But is our trust misplaced? A recent eye-opening study reveals startling gaps in how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures vulnerable communities’ exposure to tainted drinking water.

Water Woes in America:

Between 2018 and 2020, a chilling one in ten Americans drank water that could jeopardize their health. Dive deeper, and the issue gets murkier for communities already grappling with social vulnerabilities. Approximately 70% of those consuming this unsafe water hail from backgrounds grappling with challenges related to race, language, housing, and disability.

A Closer Look at the Marginalized:

Hispanic communities in the southwest and southcentral U.S. face an especially high risk. But it’s the people living on tribal lands who face the harshest reality: nearly one-third drink water that breaches health standards. These figures make it abundantly clear: clean water access isn’t a universal privilege.

EPA’s Miscalculations:

The study highlights a concerning discrepancy – the number of Americans exposed to unsafe drinking water is over triple what the EPA acknowledges. This isn’t merely an oversight. It’s a blatant misjudgment that could have grave implications for health and well-being.

Reassessing the Tools of the Trade:

While the EPA and the White House seem to have their hearts in the right place, pouring billions into improving water infrastructure, their tools for measuring water quality and assessing social vulnerabilities fall short. Bridget Scanlon, the lead author of the study, raises a poignant question: Are the current tools even fit for purpose when it comes to drinking water?

A Time of Reckoning:

With the Biden Administration and states gearing up to revamp drinking water access and quality, we’re at a pivotal moment. The study’s authors caution that, without accurate data, these well-intentioned efforts risk being misdirected.

Redefining Vulnerability:

The researchers didn’t just identify the problem; they proposed a solution. They tapped into a new database that offered a more nuanced understanding of social vulnerabilities and correlated it with water quality. And guess what? The majority of water quality violations stem from disinfectants, their byproducts, and naturally occurring contaminants like arsenic. Nitrate contamination, largely attributed to agricultural fertilizers, also plays a significant role.


This research is a clarion call for a reimagined approach. As funding is funneled into infrastructure, the researchers emphasize the importance of a broader definition for “disadvantaged communities”. After all, every American, irrespective of their background, deserves clean, safe water. And we, the young and engaged, must amplify this message and hold our regulators accountable.