January 25, 2016
Over the past few weeks we have been reminded once again of the critical links between water and public health. The residents of Flint, Michigan, have been exposed to water contaminated with lead. Residents now have no choice but to utilize bottled water for drinking, cooking, and washing. The economic costs of refitting the Flint water system so that the pipes no longer leech lead into the water supply are astronomical and the repair will take many months, but the potential long term health consequences are in human terms much worse. The community has, rightly, lost any trust it had in those in charge of ensuring that they are protected from environmental hazards, a key responsibility of government.
Environmental injustice is not only about exposures to toxic substances (important as is this) but also about the many often subtle ways in which disadvantaged communities are repeatedly exposed to environments that are not conducive to good health, including things like limited access to healthy foods and pleasant public spaces, poor quality of housing, lack of well-maintained sidewalks, lack of safety, and even simply poor aesthetic quality and absence of trees and green spaces. Some of these health effects may be subtle, but they add up and potentiate each other, and likely contribute to the large social inequalities that we continue to see.