“We were in Seville last week doing survey work and heard about people getting boil notices when there’s bacteria,” said Balazs, who joined the Community Water Center as a staff scientist after completing her Ph.D at UC Berkeley. “But one of the worst things you can do is boil water when there are nitrates. It just concentrates them.”
Much of the Central Valley’s ground water should never have been used without treatment, said the water board’s Landau. In Tulare County, it is contaminated with uranium and arsenic in addition to nitrates. The two elements are found naturally in soil and rocks and can migrate into water.
The water in Alpaugh, one of the “non-viable” towns targeted by Tulare County, has violated the arsenic standard for as long as Sandra Meraz can remember. In 2000, the water tested eight times higher than the current standard.
Notices assure customers they don't need alternative water supplies, said Meraz, a board member of the Tulare County Waterworks District. But most people buy water anyway, she added, even though “some people don’t have money even to pay for the water they get through the tap.”
Joanna Mendoza lives in Cutler, a 20-minute drive from Sanchez. “Our water district sends notices to our house that our water’s contaminated with nitrates, with [the pesticide] DBCP, but on the notice it says it’s not an immediate risk and you don’t have to buy bottled water,” she told a crowd at a conference on access to safe drinking water at UC Berkeley in March. “Yet it says that if you drink that water for many years there’s a possibility you’ll be diagnosed with cancer.”
“The years are passing and people are drinking the water. What are the consequences for them? It’s really hard to take in.”
The legacy continues
Sanchez delivered her baby boy, Jordan, in April. “It was scary, so many complications,” she said. Jordan had trouble breathing. He needed breathing tubes, IV fluids and a heart monitor. After five days in intensive care, his breathing returned to normal, and she took him home.
It’s unlikely that Jordan’s condition was caused by nitrates. Sanchez didn’t drink tap water while pregnant, and she’s even afraid to bathe her baby in East Orosi's water.
Still, she said, "when I think about this whole water thing, it really brings me down, knowing he’s going to have to deal with this problem, too.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.