The policy has been condemned by the United Nations as an international human rights violation.
"Nurses know the critical link between access to water and public health," said NNU co-president Jean Ross in a statement released by the organisation. "Lack of water, like unsafe sanitation, is a major health disaster that can lead to disease outbreaks and pandemics. The city must end this shut-off now."
In March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) began quietly shutting off the supply to homes with bills either 60 days overdue or with more than $150 outstanding. "What we are providing is a service," says Curtrise Garner, a representative for the department. "People don't have to go without water, but somebody has to pay for it."
In June alone, 7210 homes had their water supply cut off, but 15,276 have lost access since the policy was implemented, says Garner. The department says it is unable to estimate how that figure translates to the number of people left without water overall.
But health professionals in Detroit insist that the potential to trigger a large-scale public health disaster cannot be tolerated. "This is hands-down a very serious health issue," says Marcus Zervos, head of the department of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Hospital. "If someone can't take a shower or have a functioning toilet, they'll be at risk for skin infections like staph and impetigo, and gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhoea - all of which are contagious."
Access to clean drinking water is most crucial. According to Mia Cupp of Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, a non-profit that has been helping people pay their bills or obtain access to water, many affected residents have been collecting water at friends' houses, but others have been taking it from fire hydrants. Meanwhile, Detroit food banks have reportedly begun a "water bank" system across the city. So far it has distributed around 25,000 litres. The food giant Nestlé has donated 30,000 bottles of water.
Worryingly, the city's department of health, recently privatised because of the bankrupt government's inability to fund it, has no means of quantifying any impact on health as a result of the shut-offs. "The point is that this could be happening and there's no way to know it," says Zervos. "That's part of the problem."
While the DWSD emphasises that it has mechanisms in place to help families with outstanding bills, funds are limited, and the department says it has no intention of halting the shut-offs. "It's a new way of conducting business and we're going to continue to do it," Garner says. "We will shut off every single one."
Garner declined to comment on the potential health threat posed by the department's policy.
Link to original article from News Scientist Health