- 21 million people in the US don't have access to safe drinking water.
- For them, the coronavirus pandemic forces a difficult choice: wash hands but risk exposure to toxic chemicals, or face a higher risk of getting COVID-19.
- In Newark, families at risk of lead poisoning are scared to use contaminated tap water, even though the CDC says it's fine for washing hands.
- In Detroit, over 9,000 households didn't have running water at the start of the pandemic.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The water in Oscar Granaeos' home in Newark, New Jersey, is contaminated with and not safe to drink. He lives there with his four children.
Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, he faces a choice. Following the recommendations of doctors and public-health experts by washing his hands frequently puts him in increased contact with water containing lead. But avoiding it raises his risk of contracting an infection.
"I have a newborn, and even if I wash a cup, there's the possibility that something could stick to it and that could affect them in the future," Granaeos told Business Insider.
The water supply for about 21 million Americans — more than 6% — violates nationwide health standards. The CDC has said it's fine for people to wash their hands with lead-contaminated water, but there is still a possibility that people could swallow lead in water left on their fingers.
"The fact that people don't have clean water to drink frustrates me tremendously, and the fact that you have to wash your hands through this health crisis is even more frustrating, because they don't have the resources they need to take care of themselves," Anthony Díaz, the founder of the Newark Water Coalition, told Business Insider.
People of color and low-income residents are more likely to live in municipalities with water contaminants, or in older housing that's prone to lead contamination, according to the US National Institute of Health. A Business Insider analysis found that as of June, the neighborhoods without access to clean water in Detroit, Michigan, were also the neighborhoods with high incidences of COVID-19. These areas are being hit by multiple public-health crises at the same time.
9,000 Detroit households didn't have running water at the beginning of the pandemic
As of January 2020, the city of Detroit had shut off the water at 9,000 households because of unpaid water bills. Almost all of these households were in low-income neighborhoods. On average, a water bill in Detroit costs $77 a month — that's almost $1,000 a year, but the median household income is about $26,000 a year.
"This is not people not wanting to pay their bills — these are Detroiters that are either disabled, unemployed, or the working poor that cannot meet the high, increasing costs of water in the city of Detroit," Cecily McClellan, founder of We the People of Detroit, told Business Insider.
In March, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the state would turn back on the water for all homes at a flat rate of $25 a month during the outbreak.
"It shouldn't take a crisis of this magnitude, a virus, for people to recognize that everyone needs and should have affordable water," McClellan said.
So far, though, only 1,000 homes have had their water turned back on.
Other coronavirus restrictions have made it hard to buy and distribute bottled water
Thousands of families in Detroit and Newark rely on donations of bottled water.
In Newark, city-wide tests in 2017 found that at least 10% of homes tested had water-lead levels twice the federal standard of 15 parts per billion. Díaz used to pass out hundreds of gallons of bottled water with a local church every week. But after the pandemic began, many retailers restricted people from buying more than two large water bottles to stop people from hoarding in-demand supplies.
"Since COVID happened, it's been a lot harder to obtain these water bottles. We used to work with Shop-Rite, and we would purchase 150 to 200 gallons of water a week, but since there are restrictions now, you're only allowed to purchase two gallons at a time," he said.
In addition, he can't distribute the water from the church due to state restrictions on gatherings of over 10 people. Now, he does no-contact deliveries to peoples' homes.
Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of science and data at the National Resources Defense Council, told Business Insider that communities in Newark and Detroit have lost trust in local health authorities because of the ongoing water problems.
"You can't trust the water, how do you trust the public health response to a pandemic?" Fedinick said.
On July 2, however, the city of Newark reported a positive step: Its latest lead testing results showed that for the first time in three years, the average lead levels in city water have fallen below 15 parts per billion.
"This is not our way of saying this is over," Mayor Ras J. Baraka said during a press conference on July 2nd. "It's our opportunity to share good news in the spirit of all of the craziness that's been going on for a long time."
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