This week’s water main break and response underscored a fundamental, universal point: we’re very lucky that in this country most residents have access to basic necessities – clean air, sufficient food supply, clean drinking water and shelter. Many of us are so accustomed to having these things readily available that we rarely think twice about filling a glass of water from the sink or reaching into the refrigerator for a snack. As a result of the water main break in Weston, nearly two million people who live and work in communities east of Weston were reminded how reliant we are on these fundamentals that have taken them for granted.
Immediately following the breach, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) supplied residents in the affected areas with water from an emergency backup system that draws water from the Sudbury and Chestnut Hill Reservoirs. However, the fear that this water supply contained bacteria and other parasites that would make people sick if consumed led to a ‘boil water order.’ While the likelihood of getting sick from consuming this untreated water was low, the order was put into effect as a precautionary measure to protect the health of the affected communities. During the ‘boil water order,’ residents were advised to avoid drinking or cooking with tap water unless it had been boiled for at least one minute to remove any potential illness-causing agents or use bottled water. Such precautionary measures frustrated residents, as routine activities like hand washing or brewing a pot of coffee became much more difficult. News reports featured residents who were disappointed that they couldn’t easily pick up a hot drink at the local coffee chain, or frustrated they had to wait hours for water at one of the National Guard’s distribution sites.
While the need to boil tap water before use inconvenienced some, we still had access to water. If boiling water was too much of an inconvenience, we sill had the option of buying bottled water or other drinks. It may have taken longer to make coffee at home or have an iced drink, but this, in the grand scheme of things, was a minor hindrance. We could still bathe, clean, cook, and prepare drinks in a reasonably convenient way.
The water main break in Weston also demonstrates the responsibility of government to ensure some basic necessities for the Commonwealth’s citizens. The role of state and local public health authorities to protect the health of all Massachusetts residents was illustrated, and underscores the importance of “public health” for all.