I was thirsty last night, so I grabbed a cup, went to the sink, and filled it with water. Then I paused. Should I drink it? Was it safe? I wasn’t sure what to do. I was afraid of the water.

I’ve spent the week in West Virginia, where I and my colleagues have been learning about the coal mining industry. It’s a major industry in West Virginia, providing jobs and a tax base, and much of the electricity we all enjoy – and demand. But coal mining has some pretty dark sides. One of the things I learned is that the water near the mines and downstream of them is polluted with heavy metals and chemicals. The processes of displacing earth and cleaning coal produce byproducts that flush into the mountain waterways. Many of the people who drink well water in affected hollows have rotten teeth and tremendous dental bills because the contents of the water eat the enamel on their teeth, leaving them unprotected from the bacterias that cause decay. We met a woman who has $10,000 worth of crowns, and heard about a young man who had full dentures at age 16 because his real teeth had all rotted from the water. Brushing your teeth is perhaps more dangerous than not.

And teeth are just the body’s first point of contact with this polluted water. The metals, minerals, and chemicals cause further havoc once ingested. Apparently, the majority of people in some areas have had their gall bladders removed, and cancers are widespread. We met a woman named Maria who said she had once been asked if she knew anyone who died of cancer. She got some paper and filled 12 pages with names. Maria is also one of the people who has had her gall bladder removed, and she has returned to drinking soft drinks because they are healthier than the water.

As my colleague Aaron Cooper pointed out, we know the statistic that one is six people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. It’s startling to realize how many of them live right here in the USA.

-Nancy Michaelis