Pregnant people across the country lack access to safe drinking water. Grassroots organizations are stepping in when government can’t deliver.
Sarah Sloat January 5, 2023
When Jamika Jones was pregnant with her son earlier this year, her mother worried about her drinking water from the tap. Jones lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where more than a third of the water service lines contain lead; when those pipes corrode, they can release the neurotoxin into the water flowing through them.
Lead exposure has been linked to increased risk for miscarriage, pregnancy complications like hypertension, premature birth, low birth weights and cognitive and behavioral disorders, among other ailments.
“The possibility of the water being contaminated became a big concern for me,” Jones said.
Her mother connected her with volunteers from the Clean Water for Pregnant People (CWPP) program, who soon delivered six cases of canned water and scheduled a second dropoff. The water brought an immediate sense of relief, Jones said.
“It took care of my family and I for a while,” Jones said. “They even supplied me after I had my son. I was able to cook with it. I was able to feed him with that water.”
Millions of Americans are exposed to water systems that violate quality standards and the Clean Water Act. According to a 2021 investigation by the Guardian, more than 25 million Americans drink from water systems that have repeatedly violated federal standards. That year, more than 38,000 public water systems had at least one violation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This is due to aging infrastructure, strained community finances, and contamination from corroding lead pipes, fertilizers, per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and other pollutants.
A disproportionate number of those exposed are from Black, brown and Indigenous communities. Further, a legacy of disinvestment in historically Black communities contributes to an existing maternal health crisis: Black mothers suffer higher rates of miscarriage and stillbirth and are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white mothers.
Environmental justice and reproductive justice groups across the country are pushing for investments to bring safe drinking water to cities like Milwaukee; Flint, Michigan; and Jackson, Mississippi. Many activists say the risk that lead and other contaminants pose to pregnant people and small children is too urgent to wait for infrastructure upgrades, so they are bringing water door-to-door.
“When people reduce reproductive justice to only questions about having babies or not, it completely sidesteps this responsibility to create communities in which children don’t have to deal with ongoing toxic exposures through the land, air, and water,” said Jade Sasser, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside.
Environmental justice is a key part of reproductive justice, Sasser said. The right to parent children in a safe environment is threatened in communities where an act as essential drinking water is imperiled, she added.
In Milwaukee County, 5.6% of children under five tested positive for lead poisoning in 2020, nearly three times the national average. Sources of lead exposure can include paint, leaded household dust, soil, and drinking water. Nine out of ten water sampling sites throughout Milwaukee have lead levels less than 6.2 parts of lead per billion parts of water (ppb), which is less than the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb, and service lines in Milwaukee are treated with a corrosion control method that decreases lead levels.
Still, there is no safe level of lead in water — and Milwaukeeans like Jones want to take precautions to avoid any risks.
CWPP, part of a broader group called Get the Lead out Coalition, has delivered 3,000 gallons of water to more than 50 households, including Jones’. The water was initially donated by the charity Canned Water 4 Kids; volunteers recently installed an advanced filtration system at a local church, which is where they now source donations.
“As a parent, lead toxicity was something I was cognizant of before being a part of this group,” said Jason Geils, a volunteer with CWPP. Geils said that he has an adult son with special needs; at the time of his son’s diagnosis, he worried lead exposure may have contributed to his health problems.
Milwaukee is replacing lead water service lines to homes at a rate of around 1,000 lines per year. At that rate, it would take 70 years to replace all the city’s lead pipes, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said at a conference in September, calling the timeline “unacceptable” and blaming a lack of adequate funding.
The CWPP program was created, in part, because organizers felt the city was responding too slowly to the crisis. “This initiative was done to have an immediate impact,” Geils said.
In 2021, the Biden administration pledged it would replace every lead pipe in the country, and in June announced more than $4 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds and annual appropriations could be used toward the goal.
But it’s not just lead contamination that puts pregnant people at risk.
In Jackson, Mississippi, residents were put under a boil water notice in July after turbid water started flowing from the city’s taps. The next month a major storm paralyzed a water-treatment plant, leaving the majority-Black city’s 150,000 residents without safe drinking water.
Parents scrambled to access limited supplies of bottled water; officials advised them to use bottled water — not boiled water — to prepare baby formula.
Jackson’s water crisis drew comparisons to Flint, Michigan, where residents became sick soon after officials began sourcing water from the notoriously polluted Flint River. The percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels doubled in the year after the switch. Fertility rates decreased and fetal death rates increased during the period in which residents were largely unaware of the amount of lead in their water, suggests a 2019 study.
More Americans lack access to clean water than many realize, said Tamarra James-Todd, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. What makes headlines represents a small slice of the issue.
“We get these snippets of stories that highlight what are really tip-of-the-iceberg moments,” James-Todd said. “You see Flint, you see Jackson… But there are many more situations where people don’t have access to clean water.” For example, an estimated 48% of tribal homes lack access to clean water.
In Chicago, community groups are responding to that city’s water crisis with direct aid — and advocacy. A recent analysis of tap water by The Guardian revealed “shocking” levels of lead in city tap water: 1 in 20 taps released water with the neurotoxin.
Organizers with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) have passed out water bottles and filters to residents coping with water shutoffs and fears of lead contamination. Senior policy analyst at LVEJO, Brenda Santoyo said the city’s own water distribution process could be more accessible. She has urged public officials to prioritize distributing water filters to at-risk populations first — pregnant people and children. Santoyo also serves on a lead service line replacement advisory board organized by the Illinois Environmental Protection agency; in 2021 she was part of a successful effort to pass state legislation mandating the removal of all lead service lines, with a timeline of up to 50 years for completion.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has vowed to replace lead lines in the homes of low-income residents, but advocates say the program is moving too slowly.
“The pace [in Chicago] is really glacial,” said Angela Guyadeen, director of the Safe Water Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “At the current rate, it’s not only going to take beyond 50 years — which is required by law — but will likely take significantly longer.”
The issue of water safety across the country is further complicated by “flaws in our policies and the way that we determine what’s safe,” Guyadeen said. Water systems may meet EPA standards, but contaminant levels below legal limits can still impact health.
Hanging over all of this, of course, is last year’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. Most abortions are now banned in 13 states, including Wisconsin and Mississippi.
Many people harmed by environmental racism are those who now lack access to abortion, said Shaina Goodman, the director for reproductive health and rights at the National Partnership for Women & Families.
“People who live in communities harmed by lack of access to clean water are keenly aware of the health consequences that has on their lives,” Goodman said. Without access to clean water or reproductive freedom, “we’re basically condemning them to unhealthy pregnancies and reducing the likelihood of good health outcomes for them and their babies.”