Dangerous Arsenic Levels May Be Lurking in California Prison Water: Study

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According to a new study, incarcerated Californians — and those living in neighboring rural communities — may be exposed to dangerous amounts of arsenic in their drinking water.

Arsenic concentrations in the water supply of Kern Valley State Prison and three nearby Central Valley communities exceeded legal limits for months or even years at a time, according to the study, published Wednesday in Environmental Health Perspectives.

To reach their conclusions, the authors combed through 20 years of water quality data from the prison and adjacent communities of Allensworth, McFarland and Delano, where aquifers contain unhealthy levels of naturally occurring arsenic.

Long-term exposure to even small amounts of arsenic in drinking water has been linked to several cancers and other serious health problems, the authors warned.

“There has been a lot of work, primarily by journalists and inmates themselves, that points to serious environmental health hazards in prisons,” said first author Jenny Rempel, a graduate student at the University of California – Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. , in a statement.

“And yet there have been very few studies of these environmental health challenges,” Rempel continued. “This is one of the few studies to document the ongoing structural challenges to realize this fundamental human right to water on both sides of prison walls.”

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California recognized the human right to water in September 2012, then the then head of government. Jerry Brown (D) signed the AB-685 bill into law, the study authors noted. With that move, California became the first state in the country to recognize the human right to water through legislation.

But statewide, about 370,000 Californians rely on drinking water that may contain high levels of the chemicals arsenic, nitrate or hexavalent chromium, another team of Berkeley researchers found earlier this year. And such contamination, they found, has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and residents of rural areas.

The Environmental Protection Agency lowered the maximum contamination level for arsenic from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion in 2006, the authors of Wednesday’s study noted.

Still, Kern Valley State Prison opened in 2005 with no plans for arsenic remediation, though water quality data suggested the system would not meet these new standards, Rempel explained.

In fact, arsenic levels in drinking water at Kern Valley State Prison and in all three surrounding communities exceeded 10 parts per billion at various times over the past two decades, Rempel and her colleagues noted.

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According to the study, these levels sometimes persisted even after the region received state funding for arsenic remediation.

For example, the prison exhibited average arsenic levels of about 20 parts per billion until the completion of a $6 million treatment facility in 2013. But even with that system, arsenic levels occasionally peaked above 20 parts per billion between 2017 and 2019, the researchers found. authors.

“While all four communities met the federal arsenic standard at the end of our study period, we found ongoing water injustices that transcended carceral boundaries,” Rempel said.

In the communities surrounding the prison, residents may choose to drink bottled water or install water filtration systems, the authors acknowledge. Nevertheless, they objected, many low-income households cannot afford to do this.

The researchers noted that Delano’s drinking water — the largest of the communities, with a population of 50,000 — has almost never exceeded 10 parts per billion for arsenic since 2013, after new wells and arsenic treatment facilities were built.

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But in McFarland — a population of just 12,000 — arsenic levels have occasionally exceeded 10 parts per billion, according to the study, despite the addition of a new treatment system.

The even smaller community of Allensworth, which has only about 600 residents, does not yet have a treatment facility, the authors emphasized. Instead, the city relies on water mixed from two wells to lower arsenic levels, as well as state-subsidized bottled water, they explained.

In light of these findings, Rempel and her colleagues called for increased support for water treatment plants in low-income communities, as well as for the implementation of new, affordable technologies that provide access to safe drinking water.

“But to really deliver on the promise of the human right to water, we need to establish adequate technical assistance and other creative approaches to ensure that communities can successfully use treatment systems in the long term,” Rempel said.

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