Dangerous Arsenic Levels May Be in California Prison Water

Dangerous arsenic levels have been found in a new study in California’s prison water, exposing incarcerated Californians and those who live in neighboring rural communities. 

Arsenic concentrations in the water supply of the Kern Valley State Prison and three nearby Central Valley communities alarmingly exceeded regulatory limits for months or even years at a time. The new study was published today in Environmental Health Perspectives. 

Two decades of water quality data from the prison was studied for the new research, as well as data from the adjacent communities of Allensworth, McFarland, and Delano. The data showed that groundwater aquifers contained unhealthy levels of naturally occurring arsenic. 

Any long-term exposure to even small amounts of arsenic in drinking water has serious health implications. Arsenic in drinking water has been associated with multiple types of cancers, as well as other serious health issues. 

California was the first state in the nation to recognize the human right to water through legislation passed in September 2012. Yet across the state, about 370,000 Californians rely on drinking water that may contain high levels of chemicals, including arsenic, nitrate or hexavalent chromium. 

The chemical contamination disproportionately impacts communities of color and residents of rural regions. 

The Environmental Protection Agency reduced the maximum contaminant level for arsenic from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion in 2006. 

When Kern Valley State Prison opened in 2005, it did so without any plans for arsenic remediation, even though water quality data suggested that the system would fail to comply with these new standards. The drinking water arsenic levels at the prison and in all three surrounding communities exceeded 10 parts per billion at various times in the past two decades.

“There has been a lot of work, primarily by journalists and by incarcerated people themselves, that suggests serious environmental health hazards in prisons. And yet there have been very few studies looking at these environmental health challenges,” first author Jenny Rempel, a graduate student in the University of California – Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, said in a statement.

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