Where Access to Clean Water is a Luxury

The economic inequality that divides Boston residents

Kaela Anderson, Juliette Chacon, Yuri Choi, Jesse Goodman

All living beings need clean drinking water to live, but in Boston access depends on race and socioeconomic status. According to data from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, residents of less-affluent neighborhoods in Boston are more likely to have drinking water delivered through lead pipes exposing them to potential health hazards.

Lead impacts people of all ages, but it’s especially dangerous for children. Most cases of lead poisoning are the result of paint, but up to 10 percent of cases are caused by tainted water and other causes. Epidemiologist Mariya Fishbeyn from the Boston Department of Public Health says “Children living in low-income communities are over three times more likely to have elevated blood lead levels compared to children living in high income communities. Black children are nearly 2.5 times more likely to have lead poisoning when compared to white children.”

On a recent Thursday, Roxbury residents (from left) Pristine Smith, Melvia Walker and Alice Hayes stood on the corner of Humboldt Avenue and Waumbeck Street. “That we still have lead pipes that our water and everything else is going through, is something that the community needs to be aware of. If you’re not aware of it, you’re not going to do anything about it,” Smith said.
Hayes said that Roxbury’s concerns are taken less seriously than other, predominantly white neighborhoods. “Years ago, when I was a child, there used to be a machine that used to come down the street and sweep the street. But then when the neighborhood became predominantly of people of color, the street sweeper stopped coming,” Hayes said. “They stopped sweeping the street … so they could care less about the pipes that are hidden, if they don’t care about what’s visible.”
Massachusetts Pipeline Service workers repair pipes on Fairfield Street. Kelsey Pieper, assistant professor civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, says that ownership of the water pipes is split between the utility and the homeowner.”
“When you do a lead pipe replacement, the utility is responsible for replacing their section,” Pieper said. “They will often offer for the resident to have their pipes replaced for a cheaper cost because they’re already digging it up, but it’s very location dependent on how this practice actually goes.”
This home on Waumbeck Street is one of the many residences in Roxbury still serviced by lead pipes. “If you’re a landlord, you have to offer hot water and running water,” says Hajar Logan director of Roxbury-based environmental justice group Alternatives for Community & Environment. “We have significant ground-water contamination and we have an old sewer system … We’re actually looking for grants that will test for ground-water contamination so we could find the extent of the damage and manage the sewer system.”

“How much you can afford to spend on [your home] determines your access to these things,” says Dr. Ameet Pinto, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. “That automatically puts people from economically [vulnerable] populations at a disadvantage.”
Just 2.2 miles away from Roxbury, Northeastern University residential dormitory Burstein Hall, built during the 1920s, is the only campus building still served by lead pipes, according to information from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. “I usually use my sink or one of the taps in the building [to fill my water bottle],” said second year student and Burstein resident Sarah Carbeau. “It’s probably not that clean of water … [Northeastern] should give clean water to all of their students.”
Fifth year Northeastern pharmacy major Taehyeon Kim fills his water bottle in the Marino Recreation Center. In 2015, Northeastern replaced older model water fountains with 190 new filtered water stations. “They’re very convenient, I don’t have to press any buttons,” said fifth year student Naomi Keis. “The filter is comforting.”

Produced by students of the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2019