One of the most perplexing questions that leave us without an answer involves water. In a nation with a gross domestic product greater than $20 trillion, how are multiple cities with more than 50,000 people unable to get drinkable water? Relying on news stories, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, and other metrics, we’ve identified the ten cities with the worst water in the US.
1. Flint and Detroit, Michigan
The Flint water crisis has been the canary in the coal mine for aging infrastructure throughout the United States. The City of Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014. This switch, in combination with aging pipes and failure to administer a lead-reducing additive called orthophosphate, left Flint residents drinking poisoned water.
Since President Obama drank “filtered tap water” in Flint in 2016 (did he really, though?), it’s become clear that Michigan has a water infrastructure problem. Years of corruption (usually at the cost of investments in infrastructure) and the erosion of the tax base have contributed to lead and other horrifying contaminants in the tap water in Detroit and several other cities throughout Michigan.
2. Brady, Texas
Brady, Texas, may not suffer from the usual waterborne hazards caused by corroding lead pipes, but its water contains something just as disturbing. Many residents in Brady don’t drink tap water because it comes from wells with dangerous levels of radium. That’s right; the naturally occurring radioactive metal has made its way into the water in Brady and other cities throughout Texas.
3. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The City of Pittsburgh hired a water consultancy called Veolia in 2012, knowing that the agency’s mission would be to cut costs. One of the results of cost-cutting measures was a spike in lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water supply, due in part to a reduction in anti-erosion chemicals meant to keep lead particles from entering the ever-running water flows.
The city detected lead levels in 2016 that were more than one and a half times above the federal limit. Pittsburghers continue to face regular boil-water advisories and surely have continued questions about what’s in their water.
4. Pensacola, Florida
A study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranked Pensacola, FL, as having the worst-quality water of any city in the United States. Among the alarming chemicals found in Pensacola’s water were cyanide, chloroform, and lead. When in Pensacola, stick with Pepsi-Cola.
5. Las Vegas, NV
When local news stations publish stories proclaiming that your city’s water “is still safe to drink,” it’s a cue that you should stick with bottled water during your bachelor party weekend. Vegas may not have the most toxic water in America, but its status as a popular tourist destination means its sketchy water warrants attention.
In 2022, wildfires and flash flooding forced Vegas’s politicians to rely on backup water supplies and temporary treatment systems. This has led many in Las Vegas to drink tap water cautiously and, in some cases, not drink tap water at all.
6. Houston, Texas
Houston is one of America’s largest cities, yet residents reportedly do not trust the quality of their drinking water. Their suspicions are rooted in evidence and experience, as environmental testers have found elevated lead levels in the drinking water of several Houston homes. While lead in water may not be rare in the United States, it is inexcusable for the fourth-most populous city in the country.
7. Riverside, California
Riverside is another city that the EWG condemns for having water laden with unsafe chemicals at unacceptable levels, including but not limited to uranium. Dangerous uranium exposure can contribute to respiratory disease, organ failure, and other life-threatening health conditions.
8. Jackson, Mississippi
Jackson, Mississippi, one of the poorest state capitals in the United States, has recently made headlines because of its poor water quality. While the national spotlight has since been redirected towards submarines and other issues, the people of Jackson still grapple with outages, leaking pipes that dump 5 million gallons per day, brown water, and water that requires boiling even when it appears to be the right color.
9. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Another Rust Belt city that has suffered from the death of American industry and the flight of its tax base, Milwaukee suffers from the crumbling infrastructure so common in the Midwest manufacturing cities. That infrastructure includes corroding lead water lines that will reportedly take 70 years to replace.
10. East Palestine, Ohio
In the wake of American leaders’ decision to burn five tank cars’ worth of toxic vinyl chloride over East Palestine, Ohio, the official line is that the water in East Palestine is “safe to drink,” despite speculation that the vinyl chloride may have seeped into water sources.
After all, thousands of fish in the area died immediately following the chemical spill and toxic burn, the soil was irreparably contaminated, and residents suffered severe health effects as they lived under toxic clouds. If you have any sense and have yet to relocate from East Palestine, you’ll buy bottled water for the foreseeable future.
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