Watered Down Justice

While the Safe Drinking Water Act guarantees all Americans access to clean, drinkable water, it hasn’t worked out that way in practice. NRDC partnered with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA) and Coming Clean to analyze nationwide violations of the law from 2016 to 2019. Researchers have found a disturbing relationship between sociodemographic characteristics—especially race—and drinking water violations. They found that the rate of drinking water violations increased in:

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Areas with more non-native English speakers
  • Areas with more people living under crowded housing conditions
  • Areas with more people with sparse access to transportation

The analysis revealed that race, ethnicity, and language had the strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act. That means that water systems that serve the communities that are the most marginalized are more likely to be in violation of the law—and to stay in violation for longer periods of time.

In the evening hours of February 3, 2023, an eastbound Norfolk Southern train derailed in the normally quiet town of East Palestine, Ohio, caught fire and spread a variety of hazardous chemicals over a broad area. In the months following this catastrophic failure, the residents in the region have had to deal with contaminated soil, surface water, and air pollution, and deal with the fears that exposure to some of the hazardous materials on that ill-fated 32N train might lead to significant health problems in the years ahead.

Vast quantities of hazardous materials are being moved near people’s homes, in an industry where derailments, collisions, and other incidents are all too regular of an occurrence. Fractracker Alliance has published a report and map quantifying rail incidents, and identifies risks to residents of the upper Ohio River Valley:

Like the garbage that produces it, landfill pollution is out of sight and out of mind for many— but for the communities that live near landfills and are vulnerable to toxic air and water pollution, our landfill problem is both visible and urgent. These burdens can often fall on communities of color and low-income residents.

The U.S. Landfill Emissions Map from Don’t Waste Our Future shows how municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills across the country compare to other industrial sources of methane emissions—a potent climate-warming greenhouse gas.

Learn about the state of plastic research in people. In the absence of health monitoring for these plastic chemicals, the Plastic Health Map by the Minderoo Foundation shows what has been studied over several decades and is a tool to help us transition to a world where plastic is more sustainable, safer and free of toxic chemicals.

It brings together data from more than 3,500 primary studies from 1960 to 2022, which can be explored by researchers, clinicians, policymakers and anyone keen to find out more, via a user-friendly dashboard.

Evidence focuses on plastic polymers, bisphenols, plasticisers, flame retardants, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Users can search by chemical or health outcome, in different countries, age groups and more.

The methods and results of this systematic evidence mapping project are published in the Environmental International article.

The number of U.S. communities confirmed to be contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS continues to grow at an alarming rate. As of August 2023 and the latest data shows 3,186 locations in 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories are known to be contaminated.

The latest update of this interactive map shows PFAS pollution in public and private water systems. Details about our sources and methodology are here.

Information about sites newly added to the map comes from various PFAS detections reported to the EPA under UCMR 5, which requires monitoring of public water systems for 29 PFAS between 2023 and 2025. More data will be released on a rolling basis over the next two years.

Drinking water systems across the U.S. are contaminated with the hazardous “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. The presence of these toxic chemicals in water is known to harm humans who are exposed to them.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Freshwater Fish Map shows how PFAS also contaminate the bodies of fish in rivers, lakes and streams, where these chemicals also pose a risk to human health.