Wellness design and federal legislation rarely intersect, but the just-signed bipartisan infrastructure deal – officially named Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – has several  components that will benefit Americans’ well-being where they live.

While most of the funds will go toward public infrastructure, such as airports, bridges, roads, tunnels and ports, providing residential access to high speed internet, removing lead pipes, strengthening the power grid and cleaning up polluted Superfund sites will substantially benefit homes, health and safety.  

Clean Drinking Water

This component of the new law may have the greatest health and safety impact on Americans at home. “Currently, up to 10 million households lack safe drinking water,” the White House fact sheet reads, touting $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water for households and other facilities. “From rural towns to struggling cities, the legislation will invest in water infrastructure and eliminate lead service pipes, including in Tribal Nations and disadvantaged communities that need it most.”

One of the communities that will likely benefit is Flint, Michigan, which became the poster child for lead poisoning in 2014. Karen Peterson, a professor of global public health and environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, explained the danger in a 2020 Forbes.com article on the Flint disaster this way: “Even in small quantities, exposure to lead can cause kidney damage, speech and learning problems, delays in physical growth, and seizures.” Adults can be impacted by brain and kidney damage, as well as with potential reproductive repercussions, including miscarriages, abnormal sperm, risk to the fetus and high blood pressure problems for the expectant mother if expose to high levels of lead, she added. “Given the severe consequences of lead poisoning for both children and adults, removing sources of lead from an environment is critical,” the public health professor concluded.

It appears that this new legislation will finally make that happen for Flint residents – and for the residents of many other American cities. “Flint is no aberration,” observed Scientific American. “In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America,” the publication noted, citing a Reuters study of nearly 3,000 regions with double the lead poisoning rates of the Michigan city, adding “more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher.”

Pandemic impact

Water infrastructure deficiencies severely impacted many Tribal Nations as COVID-19 spread across the country last year. An April 2021 report by the Water & Tribes Initiative: Colorado River Basin summarizes the connection this way: “Many of our family members, our elders, and our children have lost their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic because clean and safe water was not available.”

The Indian Health Service, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, confirms the deficit: “Adequate sanitation facilities are lacking in approximately 38,000 American Indian and Alaska Native homes (or 9.5%). Of these homes approximately 7,100 (or 1.8% lack access to a safe water supply and/or waste disposal facilities.” This is nearly double the rate of the general population, the agency observes, noting that sanitation shortcomings contributed to infection rates that were more than triple the rate in non-Hispanic Whites.

High Speed Internet     

Tribal Nations are also among the populations likeliest to lack high speed internet – more than four times that of the general population. The White House promises the new law will ensure everyone’s access. “Broadband internet is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected,” noting that more than 30 million residents live in areas with no broadband infrastructure or insufficient speeds – “a particular problem in rural communities throughout the country. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal will deliver $65 billion to help ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet.”  

Power Grid Upgrades

One of the five facets of wellness design is safety, and an upgraded power grid can potentially reduce the type of outages that downed Texas’ grid last winter, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The law will deliver $65 billion to building a more resilient grid that will also reduce health-damaging pollution effects. Those effects are far greater than initially believed.

As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a section of the National Institutes of Health, reports, “When the National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established in 1970, air pollution was regarded primarily as a threat to respiratory health. Over the next decades as air pollution research advanced, public health concern broadened to include cardiovascular disease; diabetes mellitus; obesity; and reproductive, neurological, and immune system disorders.” The report adds that air pollution exposure is associated with “oxidative stress and inflammation in human cells, which may lay a foundation for chronic diseases and cancer.”

Pollution Site Cleanups

The law’s $21 billion in Superfund and brownfield cleanup will also reduce exposure to air pollution, soil and water sources in homes near those sites, improving the health, longevity and safety of millions of Americans.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the most common contaminants found at Superfund sites are asbestos, dioxin, lead, soil bioavailability (which is human exposure to contaminants by ingestion — e.g., children getting dirt in their mouths through play) and radiation. Each has serious consequences for human life and health.

Hazards like hurricanes, storm surge and flooding, which are growing more common and severe, can carry these pollutants from affected sites to neighboring areas, increase the importance of cleaning them up.

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