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Don't shut off our drinking water

How can we teach elementary school children to wash their hands when they have no water?

Imagine a place and time where families are unable to mix formula for their infants, teenagers are too embarrassed to attend school because they cannot bathe and grandparents are unable to access safe water to take medication.

If we don't act now, that time and place will be Baltimore in 2015. The current Baltimore City Public Works plan set to go into effect this month will shut off water to 25,000 customers in Baltimore City ("Baltimore collects $1 million in unpaid water bills," April 7).

This plan will place the most burden on those with least able to bear it — children, the elderly and those living on limited, fixed incomes.

Despite $15 million in unpaid commercial bills, the city has chosen to go after not only businesses but also vulnerable families. As physicians, social workers, nutritionists, nurses and psychologists we care for these families every day. They are struggling with complex medical and social problems and cannot live without water.

The current plan provides insufficient time and limited resources to those who need the most help in navigating the system.

Other cities have already tried this approach to reducing their financial overhead and they have seen disastrous results. In Detroit, water shutoffs disproportionately impacted low income citizens and children, while the water stayed on for 40 businesses that had more than $9.5 million in unpaid water bills.

Shutting off the water for those with unpaid bills led to congressional hearings, a lawsuit against the city, and an accusation of human rights violations from the United Nations. A U.N. briefing on the issue stated, "Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights."

The U.N. sent experts to Detroit to evaluate concerns that disconnections disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, that due process was not being used and that children were being removed from their families due to lack of potable water. Our city should not repeat these mistakes.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has shown her support for improving the lives of Baltimore families through programs like the B'More for Healthy Babies Initiative, which has improved the health of the patients we serve.

We applaud her willingness to extend those programs to children and adolescents. However, policies that prevent the provision of water to families are directly opposed to the mission of these public health initiatives.

How can we tell children to drink less soda and more water when they have no access to it in their homes? How can we ask families to prepare healthier meals at home when they have no water to wash their dishes or prepare their meals? How can we teach elementary school children to wash their hands when they have no water?

Turning off water for needy families is not only a violation of fundamental human rights but a preventable public health problem that could soon become a public health emergency. We call on Baltimore citizens, Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen and Mayor Rawlings-Blake to intervene and stop this preventable tragedy.

Deanna Wilson, Kathryn Van Eck, Jack Rusley, Priya S. Gupta, Uche Onyewuchi, Damali Wilson, Leslie Redmod and Shanelle Geddis, Baltimore

The authors are fellows at the Johns Hopkins Leadership Education in Adolescent Health Program.

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