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On Contact: Poisoned drinking water with Seth Siegel

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to author Seth Siegel about his new book Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink. Siegel explains how our drinking water got contaminated, what the US government does and doesn’t regulate, what the contaminants could be doing to us, and what we can do to make our drinking water safe.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the poisoning of our public water supply with author Seth Siegel.

SS: Now we talk about climate change a little bit, if we may, there’s now kinds--all kinds of wildfires happening.  Imagine a community like Paradise, California which had plastic PVC pipes.  What happened? The heat of the fire melted the pipes.  The vinyl chloride and other very bad chemicals leeched from the melted pipes into the groundwater.  The reason why Paradise really can’t be rebuilt isn’t just because of the grievous cost and the--and the fires that were there.

CH: This is just a--this was the town that was completely destroyed in the wildfire.

SS: Thirteen to fourteen thousand homes were engulfed by fire.  The reason that it can’t be--it can’t be rebuilt really is because they don’t have a water supply anymore because the water is now so grievously contaminated.  It’s like a--it’s like one of these Superfund sites now, and until it’s cleaned of these many contaminants, the water really is not safe to drink.

CH: Contaminants are poisoning our drinking water.  Toxic elements are now so routine in the water we drink that the water from our taps is often a threat to public health.  Chemicals found in our water have been linked to cancer, heart disease, infertility, birth defects, and lowered IQ.  The gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency, the failure by Congress to pass legislation to protect our drinking water along with the chemical companies and water utilities, are all to blame.  There are more than 120,000 chemical compounds, pharmaceutical products and plastics now in commerce, but the EPA has only designated about 90 of them as serious enough to be regulated.  The rest are permitted in our water supply.  Joining me in the studio to discuss the crisis with our drinking water is Seth Siegel, the author of “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink.”  So you open the book, Hoosick Falls, is it Hickey, right?

SS: Michael Hickey.  Yes.

CH: Michael Hickey.  Explain.

SS: So I wanted to make sure that the reader understood that this was not just Flint, Michigan because when you talk about…

CH: And Flint, you’re talking about lead in the pipes poisoning the water.

SS: Lead in the pipes.  It’s the--it’s the most--it’s the most--if you know anything about drinking water problems in America, if you know anything at all, your mind goes immediately to Flint, Michigan.  And properly so, but should…

CH: But let me just interject, which I know from your book, it’s hardly Flint.

SS: It’s hardly Flint.

CH: I mean the--I forget the figure, but the number of cities that are still using lead pipes is quite large.

SS: Look, I’m happy to jump to lead and tell you right now, but there are believed to be as many as 10 and a half million lead pipes still in use in the United States.  And a survey done of New York State schools a year ago says that 80% of them have lead pipes into the New York State schools.  So think about that, the very people who should not be getting leaded water are children.  But the reason I started with Hoosick Falls, Chris, is because I deliberately did not want this to be the idea that it’s only Flint, Michigan.  Because if you know about something about troubled water, not the book but the concept of it, you know, of course you know Flint.  And a lot of people who I had talked to while I was writing the book, friends and people I just meet, they’d say, “Oh, you’re writing a book about Flint, you mean?”  And I said, “No, no, no the story is far wider.”  And then when I happened upon the Hoosick Falls story, which is a town in Upstate, New York, it’s bucolic.  It’s a few miles in the Vermont border.  It couldn’t be prettier and nicer.  The people couldn’t be sweeter.  And lo and behold, their water is highly toxic.  People in the town were getting kidney cancer and testicular cancer and ulcerative colitis.  Dogs and cats in the town, at the prime of their lives, were getting all kinds of illnesses and had to be put down.  And one fellow in town, this wonderful young man named Michael Hickey, said to himself, “Something is amiss.”  Now Michael’s not a scientist.  He’s just a--he’s just a regular guy.  And so my point was that if it could be happening in Hoosick Falls, it can be, and is, happening everywhere.

CH: Explain what happened.

SS: What happened was that Hoosick Falls in the 1950s saw a kind of a bonanza with the growth of certain chemical industries, particularly Teflon.  And they became a leading center of Teflon manufacturing.  Now there are many such places around the country that make Teflon or other chemicals.  And over time, the active ingredient called PFOA in Teflon was getting into this--into the water supply of the town.  And so--well it’s--by the way, PFOA is not one of those 90 regulated contaminants by the EPA, which is just another story we should talk about, but it--nonetheless, this contaminant started getting into the water and Michael started noticing that people got sick.  His father got sick with kidney cancer and he began wondering why.  His father died young.  He couldn’t figure out why this was happening.  And finally, he makes the decision that he wants to look into it and he simply by nothing more than a Google search.  He types in Teflon and cancer.  And up pops the answer to his question as to what was going on.  And the question I raised is, so if the EPA has long known that there’s a correlation between this chemical, PFOA, and these different cancers, and these different medical conditions, why in the world would they not notify a small town like this that they have to specially be testing their water?  They did not have to test their water because of a crazy exemption about small towns in America.

CH: Well, this is fascinating, which I didn’t know until I read your book, that all of these small towns are exempted and I think, if I have this correct, only two percent the EPA randomly tests in two percent.

SS: Yes.

CH: So virtually 98% go untested.

SS: If you’re--if you are a water system of 10,000 or smaller, you are basically exempt from any kind of serious testing.  But you would think that I’m just talking about rural America then, but no.  A water system is defined as the number of customers who are served by your system.  In Los Angeles County, hardly a rural community, in Los Angeles County, there are 200 separate water systems.  Many of them are no more than a few hundred large.  None of those are subject to testing despite the fact that obviously they’re living in a major metropolis.

CH: You fault many institutions and--but I think the kind of thesis is that we’ve been frozen in another era, an era before all of these kinds of chemicals and pesticides were leeched into groundwater supply.  Talk about that.

SS: And not just groundwater, by the way.  Just to make sure that your viewers understand, water comes to us, other than of course bottled water, which we’ll talk about another time, but water comes to us in one of two ways.  Groundwater is about 40 something percent of the water that Americans drink, which is that water that comes from rain or snow that gets into the ground and rests between grains of sand.  And then with using these very large pumps, it gets pumped out and purified, and the sand gets taken out and that’s groundwater.  The other kind of water is the kind that’s much more familiar to everyone which is called surface water.  That’s lakes, that’s rivers, that’s streams.  Both of them are highly contaminated.  And so the problem is, as you say, is that we’re locked in a time that’s not today.  Before the--when the current system of water production was created, both for cleaning water and for producing water for the home, it was about a hundred years ago and we add a little bit of chlorine to the water thinking that that will make us just great.  And on the way out, we added some bacteria to the water to eat up all the--we’ll call that natural organic compounds.  It’s the stuff that basically goes down the toilet or the shower or your kitchen sink.  And we did a very good job of getting rid of those--of those natural organic compounds.  What happened around 1950 is that America changed in two very significant ways.  We became a very industrialized society, post-World War II.  Lots of chemicals, “Better living through chemistry” is the phrase, right?  And second of all, is we began to be a very medicalized society.  The GIs who were returning from World War II had discovered penicillin was a lifesaver and pharmaceutical companies were empowered to create a thousand--thousands of solutions to every problem that people would have.  Today, there are more than 50,000 pharmaceutical products that are approved by the FDA as prescription medicines.  And what happens is you take those medicines in and within a few hours, you excrete them out.

CH: But what I didn’t know from the book is that 90% is excreted out because the medicines--and they have these high doses because the body absorbs such a small percentage.

SS: That’s right.  And they’re--and they’re designed to be highly inefficient because of the way that the pills metabolize.  So we end up excreting a mountain of medicines every day.  Just to give you some context, seventy percent of Americans, twelve and over, take at least one prescription pill every day.  Twenty percent of Americans, twelve and over, take five or more prescription pills a day.  All of that gets into our wastewater system.  But unlike what could be done and should be done with the existing technology at affordable prices, what we currently do is we simply treat the water as we did in 1910 and 1920.  And therefore that gets into the river, into the lake, into the groundwater and it comes back at us in a different form, in a cocktail of all these different pharmaceutical products, and pesticides, herbicides, and industrial solvents.

CH: Well, we’ll just--we’ll--maybe we’ll talk at the end about bottled water, but from your book, it’s in bottled water, too.

SS: Well, it’s in much of bottled water, not in all of bottled water.  And in addition, the problem is that people have come to believe that bottled water is a default system that will give them safety.  And it’s a falsehood.  Seventy--last year, seventy billion separate containers of bottled water are sold in the United States and people think that they’re getting immunity from bad tap water.  They’re not.

CH: This cocktail, which include plastics, maybe we should speak about plastics.

SS: Yes.

CH: What are the health consequences?

SS: Okay.  Mostly, we don’t know.  And that’s the scary part of it.  And what I’m calling for in my book is not suddenly to scare everybody and to stop drinking water, or everybody has to turn their kitchens into chemistry sets.  That’s not what I’m calling for.  What I’m saying is that with existing technologies, we have the capacity to now know what is in our water.  We have the capacity to test that to find out what the health threats are, and that we are not doing that.  Now we do know that some of the things that are in water, arsenic at high levels, this PFOA that I mentioned, PFOS, and other chemicals that are in our water, we know are dangerous for us and we also know that the smaller the water district is, again, it could be a big city like Los Angeles, but the smaller that the water district is, the number of service providers, the more likely there will be a serious violation of contaminant level.  Last year, 80,000 violations were reported of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the United States, the majority of which were in these very small water districts.  It’s putting the lives of many millions of Americans at risk and this is another thing that, with smart oversight by the EPA and a move towards consolidation of these very small utilities, we can fix within a matter of few years.

CH: Let’s talk about regulation because you criticize the way water is regulated.  I think at one point you write mayors should not be allowed to oversee water supply.  Speak about what happened, because there was a shift and one that was very detrimental to those of us who consume water.

SS: The problem with mayors controlling the water supply is that they have every political incentive to keep the prices artificially low.  And there’s a second problem, which I’ll talk about in a second.  They have--the--so they keep the water price artificially low and they do that by virtue of making sure that the water is not the purest water it can be.  There’s a phrase that I like to use, which is that “legal does not equal safe.”  So that even a town that has water that is in full compliance with the EPA, and again, many are not, that even if it’s in full compliance with the EPA, it doesn’t mean the water is safe.  By virtue of the fact that mayors keep water prices artificially low, they don’t have the funds they need to hire the most advanced engineers to work on their systems.  They don’t have the money to buy the new technologies that will purify the water.  They don’t have the funds they need to fix the broken infrastructure in their communities.  And all of these create health hazards as a result.  The other problem about pricing, and mayors, is that a lot of mayors in places where there is a declining tax base, some business has left or population has left, they start jacking up the water fees, but not for water.  So what they do is they jack up the price of water and then only maybe a sixth of that goes to actually caring for water.  Consumers think logically that they’re going to have good water because they have expensive water fees, but they don’t.  And this is--this is, I think, a consumer fraud.  I argue…

CH: We will come back to that.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about contaminated drinking water with the author, Seth Siegel.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about contaminated drinking water with the author, Seth Siegel.  So, before the break we were talking about utilities, water utilities.

SS: So, the problem we have here is, is that we have a number that should be maybe one or two or three per state, maybe a very large state like California or Texas could have six or eight of them.  But we have a mass number of more than 50,000 water utilities in the United States.  And what this leads to is inadequate performance by a very significant number of them.  There’s a reason for either local pride or for tax reasons that sometimes of the origins, these many water districts were created.  But it doesn’t serve the public interest.  And so I argue that what we need to do is we need to give incentives to these many, many small utilities to start consolidating.  Now, I am agnostic as to whether these should be in the hands of private or public entities, but what I believe strongly is that the government should set the rules of the road of what the quality level should be, what the testing should be, what the staffing should be.  But that--but that once that is established, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a public or private entity, but once mayors have an incentive to decide what the water fees should be, it’s inevitable that the system will be beggared and that you’ll have much less good water than you might have.  The--there--I argue in my book that it would be a great idea to have either coops or corporations that are sort of in the public interest, B Corps they’re called, that work in the public interest, that that would be a fine solution, too.  As it turns out, I know there’s a lot of antagonism to privately held our investor-owned water utilities, but as it turns out, there’s very interesting academic research that I’ve--that I’ve written about, which is that actually you get better outcomes and not necessarily significantly higher prices from privately held--from the--from the investor-owned utilities, the privately held utilities.  And there’s only about 15% of American utilities are investor-0owned and we should perhaps look at that as a--as a--as a solution, as a way station to getting some of these very small utilities aggregated into a--into a different system.

CH: What has the Trump administration done?  I mean they’ve made war against the EPA, how has that affected our drinking water?

SS: So the--what I’d like to say in my book is that--is that what we find is that by looking backward as far back as 20, 30 years is that this is a bipartisan failure.  And that whether it is a Democrat in the White House or a Republican, whether it’s a Democratic House and Senate, or Republican, it doesn’t really make a difference.  They talk differently, there’s a rhetorical difference, but when it comes time for voting, there’s really no difference whatsoever.  And the reason for that is, say, well how could that be?  Democrats obviously care about the environment, right?  The reason for that is, is that lots of the small towns, and even some larger towns, are in the hands of Democrats and some states where their governors are Democrats.  They don’t want to see higher cost when they don’t need to have it.  So they hide behind this facade that, well we’re in compliance with the EPA.  And because we’re in compliance with the EPA, the water’s just fine.  So it’s this--it’s this--it’s this--it’s this disease circle of saying, well, the water’s just fine, therefore I don’t have to make it any better.  And then Democratic mayors and governors no different from Republican mayors and governors, push to not have more done in terms of their local water systems.  Now, I argue in the book that it was a historical mistake to put drinking water under the purview of the EPA.  It should have been under the purview of what has become Health and Human Services.  And had that--had that been it from the beginning, and had we had a public health focused drinking water system, we would have very different incentives.

CH: Well, this is when you write about the Safe Drinking Water Act.

SS: Correct.

CH: Explain.  Because you argue that it was really counterproductive.

SS: Well, the Safe Drinking Water Act has done many great things.  What has been counterproductive is the several rounds of amendments that have been made that have changed it from, at least theoretically, a pro health--a pro-public health legislation into a legislation that is really about cost containment and cost-benefit analysis.  And that’s what I argue.  And that is why, you said it in the intro to this show, that there are 90 contaminants that are regulated by the EPA.  What you didn’t say, and I think it’s even more shocking than there’s such a small number, is that the last time any contaminant was regulated by the EPA was more than 23 years ago.  And that speaks to the fact that, again, during democratic and republican terms, there’s been very little in the way of action.  Now, as vis-a-vis Trump, well, I think that the biggest concern there is that they’ve made some changes in the waters of the United States and that inevitably given--as what United States means what people can dump into water in their own property.  And I think inevitably, what you’re going to find is that some of that water is going to migrate into what is the source of drinking water for others.  But that is, I would argue, is small potatoes compared to the much larger problems that we face.

CH: What about the industries themselves, the DuPont, you write about these large industries.  How much have they been able to essentially stymie a rational or a water policy that’s geared towards the common good?

SS: The pharmaceutical companies, the chemical companies, and most particularly the petrochemical companies, because they make the plastics that make pipes and bottles, they all have an interest in leaving things the status quo and having the entire category of water under “researched.”  Now, Chris, I actually don’t take a anti-business approach.  I believe that we need all hands on deck to solve the key problems of water in America.  So, what my attitude is if these--if these different companies are going to be producing polluting chemicals that are getting into our drinking water, and we believe as a society that it’s good for us that we have lots of pharmaceuticals, that we have lots of industrial products, or we have lots of--that we have lots of plastics, okay, fine, so we have--we believe that.  But we shouldn’t put public health at risk because of that.  And because we have the technological means at affordable prices to fix those very contaminants out of our water, to treat them out of our water, we can basically have both.  We can have the call--the burden from the health profile of these--of these chemical companies and others, and we can also have the benefit that new technology can afford for us.  And not at significantly higher prices.

CH: A lot of people will, have already, were treated to bottled water.  I mean, the industry is quite large.  But you write that the US is not--it is not--they’re not required, bottled water sold in the US isn’t required to follow FDA bottled water guidelines at all even as limited as they may be.  If water is bottled and sold within the same state, it’s exempt from FDA regulation.  And so what does that mean for people who are drinking bottled water?

SS: See, so people think they’re drinking a bottle of water, they think they’re drinking something akin to distilled water.  They think it’s purer than pure.  So first of all, bottled water is not under the purview of the EPA, it’s under the purview of the FDA.  And the FDA says that they are allowed to have up to 90 semi different contaminants provided it’s at a low level, even E. coli, even arsenic, you can have that in the water, provided it’s at a certain level.  And they have all--in the Federal Register, there’s a whole long list, many, many pages long as to what you’re permitted to have if you have bottled water.  But that’s not the bad part, that’s the good part relatively speaking.  It’s pretty bad but that’s the good part.  The bad part is that 70% of America’s bottled water is bottled and sold within the same state, which means under a quirk in the law, it’s exempt completely from any federal regulation whatsoever.  And most states have very modest, at best, if anything, oversight of bottled water within their states.  So that means that somebody could be turning on the spigot in their kitchen bottling water and selling it to the gas station, the bodega, the small supermarket down the street from them provided that’s the first sales but in the same state with no controls whatsoever.  So you have--you have the hope that the industry will self-regulate but my own experience, I suspect your experience as well, is that self-regulation only goes well if there’s somebody at least spot-checking you…

CH: That’s usually called no regulation.

SS: Yup.  The other thing, Chris, about bottled water is--and this is where if I can sort of say an alert to your listeners and viewers is that--is that what people don’t understand is that even if the water itself is excellent, so Fiji water is pretty good, and Aquafina, Dasani is pretty good, and some of the--and some of the Nestle products are very good as San Pellegrino, are actually pretty good source water.  Now Those aren’t the only ones but those are among them.  And I have no connection with any of those companies.  But what the problem is that when it’s bottled in a plastic bottle, the plastic itself is a petrochemical product that leeches on certain conditions all kinds of chemicals into the water.  So you don’t know where that bottled water was, where it was stored.  It might have been in a warm or even a hot place and if it baked a little bit, then what happened was that almost certainly some of the chemicals from the plastic leeched into the water, then you’re drinking it.  It’s a hazard generally and especially for pregnant women and young children.

CH: You write about PVC.

SS: Yes.

CH: Talk about that.

SS: Yeah, so PVC is a very widely used plastic product.  It’s from--it’s from a chemical called vinyl chloride.  And vinyl chloride requires very special handling because it’s a carcinogen and also it is called--something called--I don’t mean to be too technical, but it’s called the neurotoxin, which means that it gets into your brain.  And if you’re just lucky, you get a headache, and if you’re a little less lucky, you get disoriented.  And if you get much less lucky, you have all kinds of neurological ailments from it.  So vinyl chloride is a dangerous chemical and we have known that for a while.  So, the chemical companies, they have figured out a way to take vinyl chloride and turn it into a very durable plastic.  Now, in and of itself, that as long as you control the manufacturer, it’s one problem.  The second problem about vinyl chloride pipes is that increasingly now, communities are trying to save money and they’re not using steel concrete or copper pipes and they are now moving towards using more and more plastic pipes.  They’re not moving on their own to that.  They’re moving with a big push from industry, too, which is trying to get the federal government to say that any community that gets any federal support is obliged to look at the lowest price provider for their water systems.  Now, what that means is, is that the only choice left is for PVC.  But what is not being done, once again, the EPA is under researching this and they are not providing funds for academic researchers to check this out, but what we know is that the first several years of a PVC water pipe that vinyl chloride leeches from the pipe into the water supply and into your mouth and into your bodies.

CH: I just want to interrupt.  You write that it has been definitively linked to liver cancer.

SS: Oh, yes.  Oh, for sure.  Yeah, yeah.  And just a few weeks ago, it was now they believe it might be linked to breast cancer also.  Oh, for sure.  Oh, yeah.  There’s no question about PVC at certain--at certain volumes, at certain concentrations, being a carcinogen, there’s no question about that whatsoever.  And that’s the other reason why it’s a concern.  Now, when you talk about like now we talk about climate change a little bit, if we may, there’s now kinds of--all kinds of wildfires happening.  Imagine a community like Paradise, California, which had plastic PVC pipes.  What happened?  The heat of the fire melted the pipes, the vinyl chloride and other very bad chemicals leeched from the melted pipes into the groundwater.  The reason why Paradise really can’t be rebuilt isn’t just because of the grievous cost and the--and the fires that were there.

CH: This is just a--this was the town that was completely destroyed in the wildfire.

SS: Thirteen to fourteen thousand homes were engulfed by fire.  The reason that it can’t be--this can’t be rebuilt really is because they don’t have a water supply anymore because the water is now so grievously contaminated.  It’s like a--it’s like one of these Superfund sites now and until it’s cleaned of these many contaminants, the water really is not safe to drink.

CH: What--at the end of the book, you talk about--I don’t know how much time left, the recommendations.  But just in the last 20 seconds, what is the big--the biggest thing that we have to begin to do to confront this crisis?

SS: More research, higher water fees, more use of technology, more consolidation of utilities.  We do those four, we are on our way to a great water system.

CH: That was author Seth Siegel about his new book, “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong With What We Drink.”  That was great.

SS: Yes.