A study published by researchers at UC Berkeley and Virginia Tech found dangerously high levels of arsenic in the drinking water of Kern Valley State Prison and in many low-income communities in the Central Valley.
In 2012, the California state legislature passed Assembly Bill 685, which guaranteed the right to clean drinking water, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment website. However, the authors of the study exposed several shortcomings in California’s efforts to make clean drinking water a reality.
“We hope that research studies like this will help call more attention to persistent disparities in access to safe drinking water in lower income rural communities,” said Alasdair Cohen, Virginia Tech assistant professor of Environmental Epidemiology and study researcher, in an email.
Exposure to arsenic in drinking water can lead to severe health issues, such as cancer. Yet far too many communities do not have the proper funding to implement the necessary preventative measures, according to a UC Berkeley press release.
A large part of the study focused on data analysis of the drinking water at Kern Valley State Prison. Even after installing a water treatment system in the prison, the prison’s water still contained dangerously high levels of arsenic, according to the press release.
“There are very few studies of drinking water quality in prisons, but incarcerated people make up a significant part of California’s population,” said Jenny Rempel, a campus doctoral student, who analyzed data collected by the study. “In this study, we sought to understand how communities on both sides of the prison walls have historically been impacted by arsenic contamination.”
The California state government has traditionally relied on local governments to provide funding for infrastructure that delivers clean water, according to Cohen. However, if an area does not have a high concentration of wealth, access to safe drinking water becomes jeopardized, Cohen noted.
Cohen said that as a result of advocacy work, California has started to allocate more funding towards these communities. However, Cohen and Rempel emphasized the long road towards equitable access to safe drinking water.
“Thankfully, the communities in this study were all meeting the arsenic standard at the end of our analysis period, but hundreds of communities are still dealing with toxic tap water today,” Rempel said. “I hope we’ll collectively work toward creative, community-driven solutions to really ensure safe drinking water access for all.”