Story at a glance

  • The prevalence of lead in the U.S. water supply is estimated to impact millions.
  • Out of thousands of chemicals in your tap water, the EPA regulates fewer than 100 — and bottled water is hardly regulated either.
  • Fortunately, there are some commonsense solutions.

Seth M. Siegel knew that the plastic waste piling up from bottled water was bad, but he hadn’t realized that drinking bottled water may be questionable for our health, too.

“These bottles are made up of hundreds of chemical agents,” he says. “It turns out that under certain conditions, the chemicals that are in the plastic leach into the water.”

But to focus only on bottled water would be to ignore the central reason why bottled water is so prevalent: We don’t trust our tap water. And it turns out that the problems with the water we drink, whether it’s from the tap or a plastic bottle, are worse than you might have expected, he says. What’s most surprising to Siegel, a senior fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Water Policy, is how little the U.S. government has done to ensure we can drink from the faucet without fear of consuming lead or chemicals.

Just last month, Siegel published his new book “Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink,” which focuses on contamination in the U.S. water supply. We asked Siegel what he discovered when investigating America’s drinking water and what has been done to protect us from contamination.

The idea for your book “Troubled Water” actually came from a conversation you had for a different book project, right?

I became very interested in water scarcity on a policy level because my concern was that if we didn't get ahead of the curve on this problem, that we were going to see large refugee flows that would be highly destabilizing around the world. I interviewed 220 people and did a total of 585 interviews for a book about global water scarcity called “Let There Be Water.”

Just as I was completing that book, I interviewed a professor who said to me, “You know, the problem is also about the water quality. That's a water scarcity issue as well.” And when I asked him, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, there are really bad contaminants in our drinking water.” That includes all kinds of chemicals and pharmaceutical residues. I had never heard the phrase pharmaceutical residues before and I said to him, “Oh, like from people flushing the unused portions of their medicines down the toilet?” He said that the bigger issue is the fact that people excrete large amounts of every pill they take.

What does the fact that so many Americans have turned to bottled water say about our trust in tap water?

Well, it says everything. It says that people are defaulting to an alternative drinking water system. It says people are utterly and totally prepared to pay a premium for what they think is a better, safer alternative.

I had an interview with a man named John Doyle, who's on the Crow Nation reservation. They’ve got no money, and he says that they spend the money that they have on bottled water, which doesn't mean that the water is necessarily better, but their water is so contaminated. So, if they're spending all that money on bottled water, it'd be cheaper for them to have a better water system. But the same thing is true for you, for me and for everybody. It says that public officials who are sleepwalking on this issue have the opportunity to start thinking about this differently. We don't have to charge a fortune, but we can charge more than we charge now and get a much better water outcome.

So, how did we get to this point where we can't trust our tap water to be safe, and there's not as much regulation on bottled water?

It’s not like there's only one person or one organization or one trade association involved. What happened was public officials who are charged with looking out for us took their eye off the ball. For example, about 100 years ago, we started chlorinating our water, and that was good. But then public officials started to say the water's chlorinated, so we don't need to worry about the source of water so much. What they weren't thinking about and didn't realize is that stuff was getting into the water that couldn't be at that time measured or seen. But now with scientific tools, we can measure it and now we can know what’s in that water.

America became a highly industrialized country following World War II, and we also became a highly medicalized country. So, all kinds of industrial solvents and chemicals and pharmaceutical products started being marketed around 1950 and thereafter. Those elements started getting into the drinking water supply. For a lot of years, we didn't even know it was there because we didn't have the tools to measure it, but now we do.

It's a multilevel failure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tools and has authority to do all kinds of stuff that they're not doing. State governments have authority to do things, but they may see themselves as a clearinghouse. And localities like to have the power and the authority of controlling the drinking water in their community and getting the water fees. The reality is that all three should be doing something differently.

What do you think the federal government should be doing differently?

At the federal level, we should be having a much more pro-health approach by regulators. At the state level, states are inadequately playing the role of traffic cop — they don't want to get into arguments with localities. They don't want to issue fines, and they rarely do. And yet, we know that in a self-reporting system, more than 80,000 violations a year are tabulated across the United States. About half of those are health violations where there are contaminants that could cause grave health concerns. States don't do enough to stop it until you have a situation like Flint, Mich., where a governor fears losing his job.

We also have too many water utilities. Having 51,000 utilities is ridiculous. We really need to consolidate so that they can have more capital, and they can hire better trained people. They need money for technology, for smart pipes and for better infrastructure.

You write about how bottled water is bad, too.

Like many people, I assumed that bottled water was good. I just thought the plastic was bad, but I thought the water was fine. What I didn't understand was the degree to which what's in the bottle can be contaminated. These bottles are made up of hundreds of chemical agents, the petrochemicals that make up the plastic. It turns out that under certain conditions, the chemicals that are in the plastic leach into the water. Then when you drink it, you're consuming the chemicals.

And is the U.S. government doing anything about bottled water?

The EPA doesn't regulate bottled water. It's only the FDA. And the FDA is exempted from looking at the issue for about 70 percent of the water bottled in the United States because of this exemption that says that if it was bottled and sold in the same state, it's not subject to FDA approval. I would argue, where did the plastic come from? It should be that if any part of the supply chain is external to a state, it should be federally regulated. But it's not. Therefore, people's health is at risk from bottled water, too.

When it comes to lead in our water, do we know the scope of the problem?

Because record keeping was not as good as it could have been, we really don't know the scope of lead pipes in the country. The lowest possible number anyone gives is 6 million pipes, and the greatest number anybody gives is 10.5 million pipes in people's homes. You also have a large number of lead pipes going into schools.

Since we don't know the scope of the problem, what we've done is bury our heads in the sand. During the first Bush administration, we came to this rather simplistic approach of treating the water with chemicals. I would argue that's just a bad approach and that we should have bitten the bullet then. We should have said to the public, then and there, that we want to do total pipe replacement, it'll take 20 to 30 years to do it, but we'll do it. We haven't, and I think we've squandered these years. We need to build the political capital. We need to have people speaking out about why lead pipes should be replaced. That means somebody's going to be inconvenienced. Somebody's lawn is going to be ripped up, but tell them why it's good for them when they try to resell their house or try to rent their apartment.

Are you optimistic the political capital will ever be built?

No one is ever going to want to inconvenience themselves until you educate them on why it's good for them to do so. The lazy approach, the careless approach, is to say, “I'm going to ask nothing of anyone.” The wiser approach is to say, “Look. We know that lead fries kids' brains. We know that if a pregnant woman is drinking this water, her fetus is likely to have a lower IQ. This means it's your child, it means it's your grandchild, it's your nephew or your niece.” You're going to, in that situation, say, “Oh, wait, I didn't realize that. Now that I understand this, when can I have my pipe changed? Yes. OK, I'll have my marigolds disrupted for one season, it's OK.”

What are the differences between lead contamination and other chemicals in our water?

Lead is an unusual contaminant. It gets into the water in the last hundred yards before you get into the house, whereas most of the contaminants get into the water supply long, long, long before that happens. You need to address them in different ways, and you need to test for them in different ways.

There are some issues with water testing?

First of all, here we are in this digital age where I can find out instantaneously information about lots and lots of things. And yet, testing is still very opaque. A lot of it is done with paper and pen, and mailed in. It’s not instantaneous, and I can't check me against somebody else.

In the case of lead testing, because you're only going to get lead reactions where there's a lead pipe, there's a lot of game playing. You pick homes that you know don't have lead pipes. Lo and behold, you have a low number. The testing is also not done often enough. Even like the biggest cities, New York or wherever you would think that they're testing every day for lead, they're not. They don't have to, under federal law, it’s either every year or every third year depending on how you fall into the mix. Even then, they test fewer than 100 households — I mean, what? How is that possible?

That’s how you could end up with a situation like Flint, where they came up with a totally accepted legal report that said they had no lead problem.

What about other contaminants, besides lead?

There's not enough testing of what's called the unregulated contaminants. There are 125,000 chemicals and pharmaceutical products in commerce. And yet only about 70 chemicals are regulated by the EPA for drinking water.

It’s kind of crazy when you think about how accustomed we’ve become to distrusting tap water and limited action to change that.

I'm a believer in the power of government to do good. To the extent that people have gotten cynical about their drinking water, about government writ large, one of the ways you can restore trust is by showing the public that you're delivering on the most basic things: safety in the streets, potholes that are filled, and children are getting an education. And you show them that you're caring for them with the drinking water. It shows that you're looking out for them. It doesn't mean that every problem will be solved the day it announces itself, but it does mean that, more or less, you're going to get answers to your problems.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published on Nov 04, 2019