Research Press Release

Environment: Household water crisis in the USA assessed

Nature Communications

June 23, 2021

Almost half a million households in the United States lack complete plumbing and many more deal with poor quality drinking water according to a study published in Nature Communications this week. This hardship disproportionately affects specific social groups around the country.

Water and sanitation issues have been a growing area of concern among policy organisations within the United States. Previous research has identified water access issue patterns associated with social inequalities in the US. However, this research has often focused on a single dimension of water hardship, which has left the wider scope of the issue unknown.

J. Tom Mueller and Stephen Gasteyer consider data from the United States Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency to model water injustice. This was done by estimating linear probability models. The authors show that between 2014 and 2018, an estimated 0.41% of US households lacked access to complete plumbing, which equates to 489,836 households unevenly spread across the country, while 2.44% and 6.01% of US community water systems and wastewater permittees, respectively, have chronic Safe Drinking Water Act violations and are noncompliant with the Clean Water Act. Using these two measures of poor water quality, a total of 1,165 community water systems were found to be serious violators of the Safe Drinking Water Act and 21,035 Clean Water Act permittees were in significant noncompliance as of 18 August, 2020. Older, poorer, and less educated people were more significantly affected, as were Indigenous communities and those in rural locations. They also found that people with low income and people of colour were more likely to lack access to clean water and have incomplete plumbing.

The authors argue that specific types of water hardship require distinct policy solutions, while State-level differences in water hardship should be considered in future research.


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