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Newly Proposed Federal Water Standards Could Help Redress Systemic Drinking Water Disparities in Indian Country

Access to safe drinking water is a globally recognized basic human right. But research shows US tribal public water systems (PWS) and the homes they serve are historically neglected in planning and response efforts, placing a disproportionate burden of disease and unsafe housing on Indian Country.

This spring, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever standards for six polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals for water health and safety standards, giving policymakers and regulators an opportunity to correct the harms of the past water safety efforts for Indian Country. To do so equitably will require addressing shortcomings and resulting harms of previous water safety efforts, as well as cocreating plans and monitoring and executing response efforts in partnership with tribal leadership.

The risks of PFAs

A growing health concern in our water supply, PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals that have been widely used in industry and by consumers since 1940 to make items resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These chemicals don’t break down naturally and have seeped into our water systems, air, and soil, affecting human health. Data on the health effects of PFAS are still emerging, but preliminary results point to decreased ability to fight infection, decreased fetal and infant growth, increased risk of some types of cancer, and thyroid disease.

Detectable levels of PFAS in human blood were seen as early as 1999, when researchers first began testing. While conducting the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers found four PFAS chemicals in the blood serums of almost all the people tested.

Drinking water supplied by a PWS is primarily how PFAS chemicals make it into the human bloodstream. Estimates suggest 200 million US residents are exposed to PFAS-contaminated water. High rates of general exposure risks the health of our nation and the safety of our housing.

Despite growing concern, there are currently no federal standards for acceptable PFAS levels in our drinking water like there are for 90 other contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect public health.

Tribal communities face the greatest risk

Though the presence of PFAS is a challenge for all households, water quality issues may be particularly harmful for people living on tribal lands. To understand why tribal nations are at greater risk for unsafe water, we need only to look back at relatively recent history.

Native reservations were founded as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced tribal nations from their homelands and into remote and under-resourced areas of the US. In hand with other assimilation policies (some ending as late as 1978) and unmet federal treaties (PDF), tribal nations today continue to be burdened by systemic racism, which has resulted in lower quality of life and shorter life expectancy. Paired with a lack of infrastructure, disinvestment, and resource extraction, tribal nations are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of poor water quality and PFAS.

Indian Country homes have inequitable access to safe drinking water.  An Indian Health Services report (PDF) found 13 percent of homes located in Indian Country lacked access to safe drinking water compared with 0.6 percent of non-Native homes. Tribal water safety is poorly researched, but in the past, harmful chemicals, including unsafe levels of inorganic contaminants and nitrates, have been reported, along with foul smell and taste. Some tribal water systems are exposed to other dangerous contaminants because of their geographical location. For example, Navajo Nation has 500 abandoned uranium mines that have been linked to radioactive particles and arsenic in the drinking water.

Homes in Indian Country not served by a tribal PWS typically rely upon private wells, which are more likely to have contaminants that exceed health standards. As a result, the lack of access to safe drinking water disproportionally burdens households in Indian Country.

It’s currently the responsibility of tribal governments and utility companies to comply with EPA standards. However, the resources for testing, monitoring, and reducing harms are not equitably available to all water systems, including tribal PWS.

Evidence also shows that current monitoring systems for PFAS are less likely to capture challenges facing tribal water systems. The homes tribal PWS serve are far more likely to be served by small water systems (68.5 percent) compared with their nontribal counterparts (18.8 percent), which results in limiting regulatory oversight of safe drinking water. Researchers from the Northeastern University PFAS Lab compared the past and future plans for PFAS monitoring in drinking water and found tribal PWS were tested less often and captured a smaller proportion of the people served by the water system when compared with nontribal PWS.

New EPA standards offer an opportunity to improve water quality and redress harms

In March, the EPA released the first-ever proposed federal PFAS water safety standards. These standards are an important step toward safer in-home considerations that affect public health. But for change to occur for tribal PWS, regulators and policymakers have a few extra steps to consider.

  • Acknowledging past harms. Missing water safety measures and gaps in services provided to tribal PWS result in real harms. These harms contribute to the ongoing structural racism faced by Indian Country. Explicitly acknowledging and apologizing for these harms are essential first steps to building mutually trusting relationships with tribal leaders to create safer waterways and healthier households in Indian Country.
  • Equitable and just resource sharing: New PFAS and other water safety regulatory standards should come with increased funding and access to resources for implementation. Resource-intensive PFAS testing and remediation efforts should focus on vulnerable and high-risk communities, like those living on tribal lands.
  • Clarifying power-sharing and partnerships: To ensure water safety efforts are equitable, just, and sustainable, it will be key to build and maintain meaningful relationships with tribal leaders grounded in respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance; honor federal trust and treaty responsibilities; protect tribal homelands; and conduct regular, meaningful, and robust consultation.

To truly move towards a future where water protections from PFAS are equal for all living in the United States, it’s paramount to build policies that center the communities who’ve been most harmed and have the most to gain from our future efforts.