Potentially Dangerous Levels of Arsenic Found in California Prison Drinking Water

By Laurel Spear

DELANO, CA — A study from the University of California, Berkeley and Virginia Tech has found high concentrations of arsenic in the water supply of the Kern Valley State Prison and the surrounding communities in the California Central Valley. By looking at 20 years of water quality data, the study found that for months or even years at a time, arsenic levels in the prison and the communities exceeded the federal limits. 


In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency reduced the maximum acceptable arsenic level from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. The new law did not go into effect until 2006, yet Kern Valley Prison opened a year before that with no plans for arsenic remediation, even though data showed the prison would not meet federal standards. 


Not only did the study look at arsenic levels in the prison, but also in the adjacent communities of Allensworth, McFarland, and Delano, where there are high levels of naturally occurring arsenic. In all three communities, arsenic levels exceeded the federal maximum of 10 ppb at different points through the last 20 years. The study found that unsafe levels of arsenic continued even after the area acquired state funding for arsenic remediation. 


According to the World Health Organization, exposure to high levels of arsenic in drinking water can lead to skin lesions, a variety of cancers, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. For pregnant mothers, exposure to arsenic in water can also impact their children’s cognitive development and can lead to premature death.


“I got very worried because then I started noticing people were complaining about hair loss, about skin issues, stomach pain. We believe it’s linked to the arsenic in the water…. What they told us is we should not take long showers or steamy showers due to this contaminant in the water.” Elizabeth Martinez, a resident of Kern County explained. “I decided to stop using tap water for boiling my beans, cooking, many years ago, due to learning about my neighbors dying of cancer.”


“There has been a lot of work, primarily by journalists and by incarcerated people themselves, that suggests serious environmental health hazards in prisons,” explained Jenny Rempel, one of the authors of the study and a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley’s Energy and Resource Group. “And yet … this is one of the few studies to document ongoing structural challenges to realizing this basic human right to water on both sides of the prison walls.”


In 2013, a $6 million treatment facility was completed in the region. Before the plant was finished, arsenic levels were on average 20 ppb, which is twice the federal maximum. Even after the facility was completed, the study found occasional upticks in arsenic levels where it exceeded 20 ppb between 2017-2019. 


After the treatment facility was constructed in 2013, the drinking water in Delano—the largest city in the area with 50,000 residents—never exceeded 10 ppb. In the smaller communities of McFarland and Allensworth, however, levels periodically exceeded 10 ppb after 2013. Some of the times when arsenic exceeded the federal maximum never even received official violations from the California Division of Drinking Water. 


Being the largest community in the area, Delano receives the most state and federal funding, allowing the city to invest in reducing arsenic levels. McFarland and Allensworth are low-income communities, which have a high correlation with limited access to safe drinking water. Along with being low-income communities, many of the residents of Kern Valley are farmworkers and people of Color. 


“Our communities are mostly Latino, African-American communities, and I believe that that’s one reason why there are so many violations compared to other counties in California,” Martinez explained. “We have many environmental hazards. There’s the agriculture, the pesticides, the oil and gas industry. Then the dairy farms that create a lot of dust, odors. Policies should be in place. You know, we shouldn’t be exposed to so many contaminants that’s affecting our health.”


The authors of the study called for more water treatment facilities in low-income communities and more affordable technologies to provide drinking water. “We need to establish adequate technical assistance and other creative approaches to ensure that communities are able to successfully operate treatment systems in the long term,” Kempel explained in a statement. 


In Sept. 2012, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 685 in which California recognized the human right to water. With this law, California was the first state to legally recognize the right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water” for all people living in California, including disadvantaged people, those living in rural and urban areas, and those in prison. 


A 2022 study from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles estimated that 370,000 people across the state depend on drinking water that may contain unsafe levels of arsenic, nitrate, or hexavalent chromium. Since the study was limited to these three chemicals, the actual number of Californians relying on unsafe drinking water may be much higher. The team who worked on this study also created a Drinking Water Tool to help Californians find out where their drinking water comes from and whether or not it is contaminated. 


A 2018 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the pattern between low-income and rural communities and the unavailability of safe drinking water across the country. This study found that causes include regulatory failures and lack of investment in these communities. Even in highly urbanized areas such as Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan, many people lack access to safe drinking water, and many of the communities struggling with water contamination are also communities of color. 


Laurel is currently a junior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science with an emphasis on International Relations. She is from Los Angeles and outside of school, she enjoys cooking, snowboarding, painting, and going to concerts.

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