Dirty Water: How Environmental Racism Impacts Black Children and Families

Imagine eight-year-old Naia is preparing to go to school - only she can’t shower because the water is murky - and she has to bathe in the sink using bottled water. Naia later has to share a bottle of water with her family in order to brush her teeth. She then has to use the precious few water bottles to wash her hands, and she hasn’t even eaten yet. This is the reality for families in predominately Black communities in Jackson, MSFlint, MIBaltimore, MD, and California, who are not only currently experiencing a public health crisis due to its crumbling water infrastructure, but Black children and families are being harmed in ways we’re not discussing. Water is integral to everyday life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “over 90 percent of Americans get their tap water from community water systems,” which are considered the safest in the world.

It’s only a matter of time before these other states and local leaders are forced to reckon with similar woes of past and present in their communities. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice Director Matthew Tejada stated, “Equity is trying to close the gap; justice is about finding the reason for the gap and doing something about it.” When it comes to water quality and infrastructure in Black communities, compared to White communities, we must all admit that equity and justice are both lacking when Black lives are literally at stake. An environment - with healthy, clean water - is not a privilege. It’s a basic human right for all, and we should act accordingly.

Water Contamination: Types and Overall Impacts

Poor drinking water quality can be dangerous for children in many ways that have both short- and long-term impacts. The CDC states that germs such as Hepatitis A and Salmonella and chemicals such as arsenic and lead can contaminate tap water. Depending on the type of germ or chemical present, children and adults may experience diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of death among children under age five in the world (UNICEF), fever, upset stomach, stomach cramps, vomiting, body aches, cough, shortness of breath, and more severe consequences the longer they are exposed. Non-physical impacts on children and families may include children’s educational “learning loss,” how parents care for their children, and reproductive oppression.

Accountability and Transparency

The Clear Water Act of 1972, 50 years ago, “directed more than $1 trillion in investments into wastewater treatment plants and drove substantial improvements in water quality, especially in its first three decades.” In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was also established to protect drinking water specifically. In 2019, the Trump administration repealed water regulations enacted by the Obama administration that limited the amount of pollution and chemicals in the nation’s waterways, dismantling major environmental protections.

In November 2021, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to reverse the damage done, ensuring that disadvantaged communities benefit equitably from this historic investment in water infrastructure. The law includes $50 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen the nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems. As mentioned in Time magazine, “As with basically all environmental and climate issues, poor people and minority communities are hit hardest.” Political leaders are charged with ensuring funds are allocated to underserved communities. All related state government financial investments and EPA water quality reporting (which is currently not being completed as directed) should be transparent to community members – with the help of local/national media – because silence and inaction are not options.

Advocacy: Calls-to-Action

Addressing the harmful impacts of water contamination on Black children and families requires a holistic approach, including advocating for equitable policies, funding allocation, and impactful education initiatives. Here are a few calls to action that you can start today: