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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an enforcement alert recently urging water utility systems to take immediate actions to protect the nation’s drinking water from cyberattacks.

The alert was issued after EPA inspections revealed that 70 percent of U.S. water systems inspected do not fully comply with requirements in the Safe Drinking Water Act. The agency added that some systems have “critical cybersecurity vulnerabilities, such as default passwords that have not been updated and single logins that can easily be compromised.”

According to a recent report in Newsweek the EPA states that “possiable impacts of cyberattacks include interruptions to water treatment and storage and damage to pumps and valves, along with alteration of chemical levels to hazardous amounts.”

For cities dealing with large numbers of lead pipes a disruption in water treatment can be a death sentence to the nation’s fetuses, new born children and infants. It can also be serious threat to adults health because of lead poisoning.

Most cities, if not all cities, rely on an invisible compound that seals lead pipes to slow corrosion of the pipes that are distributing fresh water to households. These compounds often known as orthophosphate seal lead pipes to slow corrosion and help reduce lead leaching into the water due to corrosion.

The balance between treatment and protective compound is delicate. Any shift in the balance can produce devastating results like what happened in Washington DC in the early 2000s, where the chemistry in that water was changed by the water utility causing the protective orthophosphate coating to be eradicated. With the orthophosphate gone the speeding up of the corrosion process accord causing lead levels in the water to rise, which then increased infant mortality rates there by leaps and bounds.

Any cyberattack on a vulnerable water utility in America has the potential of massive public health harm, especially in cities having tens of thousands of lead service lines still in operation today. Despite being banned by the United States government in 1986 lead pipes are still in operation in massive numbers. In cities like Milwaukee, lead pipes were mandated to be installed by the government and should therefore be the responsibility of the government to have them removed at no cost to homeowners.

The potential of replicating what happened in Washington DC in 2004 and what took place in Flint, MI, where water chemistry change also harmed that community due to Flint River water being more acidic than Lake water, has many Americans living under a constant threat of sickness and death simply because we drink and use water from lead pipes.

The EPA cyber alert is welcome news. Now it’s time for all water utilities to act accordingly and without hesitation. There is no excuse for having lax systems operating our water supply. There is no excuse American citizens must still have to risk their health drinking and cooking with water from hazards such as lead pipes. Cyberattacks to our water supply is a serious threat.

Water is life. Remove the pipes now.

-Miranda is spokesperson for the Freshwater For Life Action Coalition.

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