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New report reveals major health threat facing nearly 1 million incarcerated Americans: 'Increased monitoring of [prison] drinking water is needed'

Prisoners are especially vulnerable to these chemicals because they have little control over their environment.

Prisoners are especially vulnerable to these chemicals because they have little control over their environment.

Photo Credit: iStock

A study has revealed environmental injustice in the U.S. prison system, with many facilities using water potentially contaminated with toxic chemicals that are endangering inmates' health.

What's happening?

New research reveals that nearly half of U.S. prisons draw water from sources likely contaminated with toxic PFAS "forever chemicals," as reported by the Guardian

PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they're incredibly persistent in the environment and in our bodies.

The study looked at how likely it is that the water in over 6,000 prisons across the U.S. is contaminated with PFAS. Researchers focused on areas near prisons close to airports, military bases, landfills, wastewater plants, and factories, which are common sources of these chemicals. 

Around one million incarcerated individuals, including 13,000 juveniles, are especially vulnerable to these chemicals because they have little control over their environment. 

"Increased monitoring of [prison] drinking water is needed to identify the extent of PFAS contamination," the study authors wrote, suggesting that far more prisoners are drinking contaminated water than we know.

Why is prison water contamination concerning?

The presence of PFAS in water supplies at prisons is alarming due to the severe health risks these chemicals pose. 

Research suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may contribute to increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer. They might also affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children, lower a woman's chance of getting pregnant, and interfere with the body's natural hormones.

PFAS contamination is a significant threat to the already vulnerable prison population, which generally has poorer health compared to the general public. The fact that inmates often cannot access alternative water sources highlights the dehumanization and neglect faced by incarcerated individuals.

What's being done about prison water contamination?

Efforts to address this crisis include calls for better monitoring and testing of prison water supplies. As the Guardian reported, the study's authors stressed the need for comprehensive testing, as current assessments have only covered a few hundred of the identified water sources. 

Highlighting cases like a women's prison in Florida, where groundwater was contaminated by firefighting foam, the researchers urge authorities to provide clean water and alert incarcerated people to the dangers. Advocacy groups and researchers are pushing for policy changes to ensure safer living conditions for prisoners. 

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