Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents drink water contaminated with harmful chemicals like lead or nitrates. As doctors, we treat patients on a daily basis whose wells are tainted with nitrates or who get their water from aging water pipes that contain brain-damaging lead.
To ensure our water is safe to drink, fish and recreate in we need strong, health-protective clean water laws. Unfortunately, the current EPA doesn’t appear to agree.
As we write this the EPA is repealing the 2015 Clean Water Rule, which seeks to protect the nation's rain-dependent streams and wetlands from toxic pollution under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Rule is a public health priority because it safeguards the headwaters of drinking water supplies for one in three U.S. residents. The administration has also proposed significant budget cuts to EPA. Cuts to federal funds could leave states and local communities to fend for themselves to protect clean water and ultimately our health.
Water quality issues are becoming worse in many communities in Wisconsin. Residents using private wells around the state are drinking unsafe levels of nitrate — most of it from fertilizer, manure or septic systems — which can be extremely toxic to infants and has been linked to birth defects. Nitrate exceeds safe levels in the private wells of an estimated 94,000 Wisconsin households. The problem is likely related to the abundance of large livestock operations in our state.
Tens of thousands of people living in Milwaukee, Wausau and other cities with aging water pipes and fixtures may be exposed to lead, which can cause brain damage in children. In Milwaukee, close to 9 percent of children tested had blood lead levels at or above the level that indicates lead poisoning in 2014 — significantly higher than in Flint, Michigan.
Wisconsin’s childhood lead prevention program has shrunk since the federal government began sharply reducing funding in 2012. The overall size of the program is now 23 percent smaller than in 2011.
Pesticides, some of which are linked with health issues ranging from cancer to reproductive problems, are present in one-third of the Wisconsin’s private wells tested. Tests for the herbicide atrazine — a known hormone disruptor — showed 440 of 5,500 Wisconsin wells tested had levels above the EPA’s health enforcement standard.
These statistics tell us we are a long way from providing safe and accessible water for all communities in Wisconsin.
There have been improvements in Wisconsin’s waters due in large part to regulatory efforts. The Clean Water Act, which recently turned 45, has helped decrease pollution in our lakes and rivers from industrial sources like paper mills. Phosphorus pollution from factories and municipalities has been cut by over 65 percent since 1994, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
From a public health perspective, it is clear we need to defend our current state and federal clean water standards and work to strengthen them. In Wisconsin, we need to develop rules that address agricultural practices that place our water in danger of contamination and protect the private wells serving millions of Wisconsin residents. Our state legislation must move proposals that would better protect children from lead in drinking water, including updating the state Department of Health Services’ outdated standard to determine which lead-poisoned children need services. And we must require that water, in addition to paint, be examined as a source of poisoning.
As doctors, we work with our patients to prevent disease whenever possible. We understand the link between a healthy environment and a healthy community, which is why we support clean water protections like the Clean Water Act as well as robust state standards.
Dr. Monica Vohmann and Dr. Paula Rogge are both practicing family medicine physicians in Madison and members of the steering committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) of Wisconsin.
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