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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Troubled Water

What's Wrong with What We Drink

Seth M. Siegel

A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin's Griffin



EVEN WITH THE rise of bottled water as an alternative, most Americans still drink tap water. While there is generally no immediate mortal danger in doing so, the worry among respected scientists—several of whom the reader will meet in this book—is that contaminants often found in drinking water are disrupting the body’s systems. Among other problems, some of these contaminants have been shown to cause cancer and cardiovascular disease, lead to hormonal disruptions linked to long-term health problems, harm children’s brain development, and possibly trigger changes in our DNA that could later affect a child or grandchild.

Contaminants of one kind or another have been getting into our drinking water for many years. If previously much wasn’t done about chemicals that would find their way into tap water, it could be explained away by saying that we just didn’t know what was there. What is different now is that we have the scientific means to detect these toxic elements, and with other research tools, to come to a conclusion as to whether they are a threat to public health. Now, we know or can know, but there are significant impediments to doing what is needed to protect ourselves.

Drinking water in the U.S. is a victim not only of all of the many chemical compounds that find their way into drinking water as a contaminant, but also of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that protects us inadequately. This book tells the story of how all of this came to pass, leaving us with drinking water that is less safe than we deserve. It also tells how, using known technology, and at an affordable price, we can have very clean and healthy water flowing in every pipe and from every sink.

The drinking water system we have today is the result of a failure of vision and a lack of technology, but also of institutions that—in their lethargy, in their adherence to the status quo, in their elevation of cost containment over public health, in their bias toward keeping chemicals in commerce as much as possible—have failed the public they are in place to serve.

There are, of course, smart, caring people across the government who touch water services and wish that they could do more—if only the system would let them. Likewise, there are some outstandingly managed state water programs and exemplary municipal water utilities. You will meet some of these people and water utilities in this book. But in a measure of how broken our system is, several people who deserved to be profiled—people at the EPA, in state government, and at local water utilities—were worried that their being named or even obliquely described in these pages would put them at risk of reprimand or of being fired because of their advocacy of new ideas. Apparently, offering even implied criticism of a broken system could be reason for retribution. Because of this, these individuals agreed to speak only in off-the-record interviews. If these people are the unidentified heroes of this book, happily there are others now out of government or in not-for-profit organizations willing to share their stories and ideas along with their names.

Although there are heroes in this book, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are villains. No one who is involved with the nation’s drinking water is trying to deliver poor quality water. Everyone seems to want to do their best in what is a fractured and complex industry, where even a small mistake can lead to large numbers of people getting sick.

But if this book has no villains, perhaps it is fair to say that there are many culprits and bystanders. These people include some elected officials, some heads of regulatory agencies, and some of those running water utilities. On their watch, they have negligently or recklessly allowed America’s drinking water to put our health at risk, even while new technologies and smart governance could have been improving it.

A few examples, much more of which you will soon read: The EPA isn’t researching new contaminants often enough or quickly enough to stay ahead of the many chemicals in commerce and in our water. To the question, “What’s in our water and with what effect on our health?,” most of the time the answer is, “We don’t know.” Further, the EPA and state governments don’t challenge the water utilities under their control and in their jurisdictions to spend more and to modernize their facilities and infrastructure. And the vast majority of water utilities have elevated keeping expenses down over making public health their top priority.

While the EPA’s go-slow approach to the search for drinking water contaminants and its failure to effectively enforce current rules are the most significant causes of why America’s drinking water is in decline, the scope of that inaction is similarly confounding. With more than 120,000 chemical compounds, pharmaceutical products, and plastics now in commerce, the EPA has only designated about ninety of them as problematic enough to be called “regulated.” This is a status that triggers a requirement by the nation’s water utilities to test for the presence of that contaminant and to then remove enough of it so that the water can be consumed without there being a health threat.

As startling as is the failure to not find even one hundred contaminants dangerous enough to be regulated in the nearly fifty years since the EPA was given authority to do so, that isn’t the most shocking example of the EPA’s lax oversight discussed in this book. The yet more amazing fact is this: Despite thousands of new potential water contaminants coming to market every year—and joining those other 120,000 chemical compounds, pharmaceutical products, and plastics—the last time the EPA regulated any new item as a drinking water contaminant was more than twenty years ago.

While, of course, the EPA shouldn’t regulate a contaminant just to provide the appearance of activity, the opposite is also true: Contaminants shouldn’t fail to be regulated just because the EPA hasn’t developed a sense of urgency. The lack of timely research, on the one hand, and the inability to reach conclusions even after multiple rounds of research, on the other, is a symptom of misdirected legislation and poor execution by the EPA. There are at least dozens—and possibly hundreds—of contaminants that are known or suspected of being hazardous, but which have not been regulated. How this could be possible will soon be clear to the reader.

In addition to a limited amount of timely action by the EPA, drinking water suffers from a bloated number of water utilities. You could win a bet asking someone to guess how many water utilities there are in the U.S., because it defies logic and almost anyone’s concept of efficiency. The impossibly large number—discussed in the book—is an impediment to the adoption of important technologies, replacing broken and failing pipes, retention of experienced engineers, and most important of all, delivery of the safest water possible.

Instead of relying on tap water, many Americans have turned to bottled water, now the most popular beverage in the U.S. While there may be some clever marketing by the soft drink companies at work, bottled water’s success is due mostly to the failure of government and the water utilities to provide tap water that the public can trust. As discussed later in this book, over 90 percent of those who drink bottled water cite “safety” or “quality” as a reason for doing so. Proving this point, most bottled water is consumed within a few feet of a sink, and 60 percent of all bottled water sold is for use in people’s homes. Driven by skepticism about the safety of their tap water, millions of Americans have defaulted to what has become an alternative drinking water system.

Whether bottled water is actually safer or healthier—it often isn’t—is beside the point. If Americans are drinking bottled water when tap water is available, it is because they believe that the store-bought variety assures quality and safety—or even taste—that they can’t get when they open their faucets. In what is an important message for our public officials, it also shows that people who have the means to do so are willing to pay more for their water, if they believe it will be of higher quality and safer to drink than the alternative.

In past generations, America laid more than 1.1 million miles of water mains to bring water from a central distribution point, branching out in every town and city in the country, to homes along the path. Our great-grandparents’ generation figured out how to end waterborne epidemics that killed large numbers in short amounts of time. And our parents’ and grandparents’ generations built and paid for drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities all over the country, which, even if they are inadequate to address the drinking water challenges of today, met the needs, and were based on the scientific knowledge, of their time. In all of this, we have been great beneficiaries. Now, we have an opportunity to protect our health and the well-being of our children and grandchildren by ensuring the cleanest water that technology allows.

We are at an inflection point similar to the years before the birth of America’s environmental movement. People had a sense that something was amiss, but weren’t organized and didn’t know what to do to fix a natural world that seemed out of control—and a threat to their health. From out of that ferment came important environmental legislation, including federal drinking water laws. Similarly today, as confirmed by recent polls, Americans have a feeling that their drinking water isn’t as good or safe as it should be. Just as with the rise of environmentalism, when the public comes together to demand healthy, safe drinking water, elected officials will respond.

Following is what we need to know so we can start demanding the water we can have, and deserve.

Copyright © 2019 by Seth M. Siegel