Today is Earth Day. Katherine Robb, senior program manager for environmental health with APHA’s Center for Public Health Policy, discusses the challenges facing water quality and opportunities to work toward water equity.

KateRobbEarth Day has evolved to encourage civic participation and reflection on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in protecting our environment and our health. In recent years, water has been in the news due to problems such as lead pipe poisoning, algal blooms, PFAS exposure and Legionella.

Increasingly, we are seeing the health impacts of water contamination and security worsen due to climate change. Water is a basic human right yet inequities continue to persist around accessing and securing safe water.

Approximately 1.6 million of those living in the U.S. do not have running water or basic plumbing. Populations particularly impacted include communities of color, migrants, low-income populations in rural areas, and Native populations. Everyone has the right to safe, affordable drinking water. Public health professionals have an important role to play in ensuring that access to water is equitable and safe.

Working toward water equity necessitates understanding the water-health connection and how the field can act on it. Last year, APHA published “Environmental Public Health: The Practitioner’s Guide,” featuring chapters on Safe Drinking Water and Wastewater Disposal and Septic Systems. Both chapters highlighted the intersection of water and health and the role of the environmental health practitioner in ensuring safe, quality water.

APHA has joined coalitions focused on ensuring safe drinking water through infrastructure improvements. For example, APHA is a member of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, which is a concerted effort among nearly 30 “national public health, water utility, environmental, labor, consumer, housing, and state and local governmental organizations” working toward voluntary full replacement of lead service lines. The collaborative provides a plethora of resources and tools, including webinars, to help accelerate lead service line replacement.

Public health professionals can also use their voice to advocate for water protections through promoting sound, evidence-based policy. Most of our drinking water comes from surface or ground water sources and it is vital to ensure there are proper protections in place.

The Clean Water Act establishes the regulations for pollutant discharges into U.S. waters, as well as setting quality standards for surface waters. The Clean Water Act was designed to keep pollution, including carcinogens, nutrient runoff, sewage and oil out of the nation’s water. Yet the 2015 Clean Water Rule was put at risk with the proposed revisions of the “Waters of the United States” rule. We know inadequate protections can lead to increased contaminants, such as microorganisms, nitrates, heavy metals and organic chemicals. These contaminants have been linked with gastrointestinal illnesses, cancer and damage to kidneys, and the nervous and reproductive systems. Those most vulnerable to water pollution include infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly and the immunocompromised.

Recognizing that the proposed revisions could weaken water protections and negatively impact health, APHA, along with other public health partners, advocated against the proposed revisions and will continue to work with coalitions, such as Clean Water for All, to promote, protect and conserve clean water for everyone.

This Earth Day, let’s continue to work together to protect our environment and safeguard our health by focusing on water equity.