Most cases of water contamination slip by unrecorded, and therefore it’s hard to know exactly how many cases of serious water contamination there are each year. Here are some examples of those incidents that did get noticed:
Cases of water contamination caused by bacteria in drinking water
- In 1993 in Milwaukee, Cryptosporidium, a chlorine-resistant waterborne organism, was found in the water supply. By the time it was all over the incident had killed more than 100 people and sickened another 403,000.
- In New York City in 2015, Legionella bacteria built up in a cooling tower in the city, causing an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx which killed 12 people and infected 108.
Cases of lead contamination in drinking water
- In 2001 dangerous amounts of lead leached into Washington, C. ‘s water supply, yet Washington’s Water and Sewage Authority (WASA) hid its findings until a 2004 Washington Post story exposed the cover-up. A Congressional report would later reveal that nearly two-thirds of homes tested (tens of thousands of homes in all) had tap water that exceeded allowable limits. Some samples exceeded 5,000 ppb, the threshold at which water officially becomes hazardous waste. The problem was originally uncovered by Marc Edwards, a young environmental engineer hired as a consultant for Cadmus Group, which was working as an EPA contractor. When Edwards advised that the whole city needed to be tested for water contamination, Cadmus failed to renew his contract. Though the city did eventually replace lead service lines with copper ones, they didn’t touch the lead under people’s homes and they didn’t do it properly, leaving the system open to galvanic corrosion.
This means that as time goes on this corrosion will erode pipes and leach lead into the system, starting the cycle all over again. “These agencies, over every objection I made, went ahead and poisoned kids,” Edwards says in describing the situation. A recent CDC report showed that 15,000 homes in Washington D.C. were still contaminated. (Paynter, 2016)
- In 2014 and 2015, a combination of switching to heavily polluted water from the Flint River and mismanagement of the city’s water system lead to widespread lead contamination for residents in Flint, Michigan, among other problems. (We devote an entire chapter to this incident in our e-book Toxic Childhood for those who want to learn more.)
Cases of chemical contamination in drinking water
- In 2014 in Charleston, in West Virginia, more than 10,000 gallons of industrial chemicals leaked into the Elk River, contaminating local water supplies. Hundreds of residents were sent to the ER for things like skin rashes and nausea, and some were hospitalized with liver, kidney and lung problems. Cleanup was expected to cost at least $3 million.
- In 1996 in Hinkley, California, the utility PG & E failed to line wastewater pools that contained toxic waste, which allowed high levels of hexavalent chromium to seep into drinking water. It caused respiratory problems, developmental disorders, and increased rates of cancer among local citizens. Cleanup costs were $330 million and counting.
- In Woburn, Massachusetts, toxic chemical waste from local factories were found to have contaminated the water supply in 1979, leading to higher rates of cancer, especially pediatric cancer. Cleaning up the mess would cost over $68 million.
- In Mantua, New Jersey in the early 1970s, chemical waste from local auto part makers was disposed of through a local dump that wasn’t equipped to handle this type of waste, and these chemicals eventually made their way into groundwater used by people in the area. Cleanup costs were more than $120 million.
- In Ohio in early 2016, regulators had to warn residents that a 2-square mile blob of toxic sludge was heading toward the intake pipes for Cuyahoga County drinking water. The cancer-causing chemicals were dumped into lake Erie in the 1970s and have been slowly moving around. (USA Today, 5-4-2016, 4A)