Guest Host: Cecilia Kang

Cases of bottled water are shown at a fire station on February 7 in Flint, Michigan. Months ago the city told citizens they could use tap water if they boiled it first, but now say it must be filtered to remove lead.

Cases of bottled water are shown at a fire station on February 7 in Flint, Michigan. Months ago the city told citizens they could use tap water if they boiled it first, but now say it must be filtered to remove lead.

Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, vows he’ll do what it takes to make sure the tap water in Flint, Michigan is safe again. He proposes spending close to $200 million dollars on bottled water, filters, infrastructure improvements, and other programs to help the beleaguered residents of Flint. People there were drinking, bathing and cooking with water contaminated with lead for more than a year before state officials acknowledged the problem. The crisis in Flint has prompted officials in a number of other cities to take a closer look into the safety of their tap water. Join us to talk about water safety.


  • Erik Olson Director of the health program for the Natural Resources Defense Council; former director of food programs at Pew Health Group
  • James Salzman Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law with joint appointments at UCSB and UCLA, author of "Drinking Water: A History"
  • George Hawkins CEO and general manager, District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water),

How To Make Sure Your Tap Water Is Safe

Your Questions Answered: How To Make Sure Your Tap Water Is Safe - The Diane Rehm Show

During and after our recent show about tap water contamination beyond Flint, Michigan, many of our listeners had questions about how to ensure their families' safety. Our panelist Erik Olson, who is the director of the National Resources Defense Council's health program, and the team at DC Water answer a selection of them below.


  • 10:06:54

    MS. CECILIA KANGThanks for joining us. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. Investigators are still piecing together all that went wrong and who was responsible for the fact that more than a year -- for more than a year, residents of Flint, Michigan, were using tap water contaminated with lead. But people in other cities are starting to question whether Flint was an isolated crisis.

  • 10:07:18

    MS. CECILIA KANGJoining me to talk about insuring the safety of our nation's tap water, Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, George Hawkins of D.C. Water and from a studio at the University of California Santa Barbara, James Salzman of UCSB School of Law. Thank you for joining us.

  • 10:07:38

    MR. ERIK OLSONGood morning.

  • 10:07:38

    MR. GEORGE HAWKINSGood morning.

  • 10:07:40


  • 10:07:42

    KANGWe'll be taking your questions, comments throughout the hour, call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Erik, to what extent has the crisis in Flint reverberated beyond the city? Has it become somewhat of a wakeup call for other cities?

  • 10:08:07

    OLSONI think it truly has become a wakeup call. I mean, this has clearly been a problem for a while, but it really highlights, I think, three enormous problems. One is the unfair and disproportionate burden of contamination, especially of lead contamination, on low income communities of color, which is a problem across the country, not just in Flint. The second things is, specifically that lead continues to be an issue. Although we've made a lot of progress in the last few decades to reduce lead exposure, we continue to be very severely affected by lead in many major cities.

  • 10:08:48

    OLSONAnd the third major wakeup call here is that the water infrastructure of the United States, in many cases, is crumbling, it's aging, it's not up to snuff. It's not treating contaminants to remove them and we really need to invest in that infrastructure that's out of sight and out of mind. But we need to do something about it.

  • 10:09:09

    KANGGeorge, really quickly, can you give us a reminder of exactly what happened in Flint? Why did the water quality change?

  • 10:09:15

    HAWKINSSure. Lead is very rarely in the source water or in the treatment or even the water mains out in the street. In almost all cases, lead comes from the service line, which is the connection from the main to the home or in the plumbing or the fixtures in solder or otherwise in the home itself. And what happened in Flint is that, apparently, to save money, a decision was made to shift the source of the water from Detroit where it had been to the Flint River, which had a different alkalinity and acidity and it caused corrosion inside the pipes.

  • 10:09:48

    HAWKINSIt turns out, in most water systems, you do get a film on the inside of the pipe that will protect or at least inhibit most contaminants that could leach from the pipe into the water. Because of the corrosion, that film was removed and lead started leaching into water. It wasn't just lead. The first indication that there was a problem was brown water and that's usually iron coming into the pipe for the same reason. So the source water was changed, treatment wasn't that could have helped reduce the corrosion.

  • 10:10:16

    HAWKINSThat was a problem right out of the gate. The brown water was an early indicator that could've highlighted the issue 'cause that shows corrosion is happening and then lead contaminant was the ultimate sign of the problem.

  • 10:10:25

    KANGAnd the residents were certainly sounding complaints about the brown water coming and the consequences were very dire. A lot of sickness that was reported. George, you know, we watch what happened in Flint and it just is terrifying. At the same time, it has drawn public attention to the issue. Is that, in some way, a benefit?

  • 10:10:43

    HAWKINSI guess. It's hard to think of a benefit when a tragedy of Flint's proportions unfolds. The benefit, if there is one, is to focus the attention -- and I completely agree with Erik -- the water infrastructure we've delivered to the people of this country is one of the miracles of modern world. I mean, what we can deliver to the public here in the United States is something that’s one of the most important improvements to public health in centuries and it was delivered by our forefathers probably 80 to 100 years ago.

  • 10:11:10

    HAWKINSThe median age of a water main. Median. So half are older than this. In Washington, D.C., the nation's capital is 79 years. The bill has come due to update old pipes and old systems. And unfortunately, our customers are so used to us delivering this water every minute of every day and it's out of sight and out of mind just as Erik mentioned, that it's hard to think and to know what needs to be done. This is, in a bad way, because most water is treated extremely well and is very safe.

  • 10:11:38

    HAWKINSOur industry works very hard at that. Nonetheless, we need a visible indication that this investment must be made in our country and this has been a side benefit in this case.

  • 10:11:46

    KANGIndeed, it's drawn attention to something that we never see. The pipes underneath our ground. Erik, how widespread is the potential problem of unsafe water beyond Flint? Are you seeing more examples of cities seeing lead in their water, their tap water and are cities responding to that?

  • 10:12:05

    OLSONWell, certainly lead is a concern in many cities across the country. Lead pipes were used widely across the United States around the turn of the century and even after that or before World War I. Very widely used. The city of Chicago, the city of Boston, the city of New York, Washington, D.C., many other large cities have lead pipes in them. And gradually, we're going to need to replace those. It can't be done overnight. It's very expensive. But if we're going to take care of this problem, we need to start removing those lead pipes because they can create a problem.

  • 10:12:42

    OLSONEvery time there's construction in the area or when there's some kind of disruption, you can start shaking loose some of that lead and that protective coating that George was just talking about. So I think over the long run, we need to be replacing all those lead pipes. And, of course, there are other contaminants that I hope we'll get a chance to talk about, not just lead.

  • 10:13:02

    KANGEven in the last week, we've heard from city leaders in Cincinnati, in Pittsburgh and other state leaders talk about lead in their own systems and their concerns about that. But we're trying to really get a sense of really the scale of this. James, can you tell us how many communities still use the kind of lead pipes and fittings that started corroding when the water source in Flint was switched? How big is this problem?

  • 10:13:29

    SALZMANI actually don't know, yeah, I don't know the exact number. I think George is probably better set for that. Certainly, the lead pipes, to take the main to the house are very common in older cities.

  • 10:13:39

    KANGAnd George?

  • 10:13:39

    HAWKINSYeah, there's millions of connections that still have lead pipes in the service lines across the country. There is -- the best alternative -- we know enough about the issue to handle it in the meantime. It could've been done in Flint. It's done in other cities, where you add a particular chemical called orthophosphate in most cases that strengthens this film around the pipe to inhibit lead coming in. But it's exactly right. When there's construction in the street, when there's a change to the treatment process, there's a lot of things that can dislodge the lead.

  • 10:14:08

    HAWKINSThe best thing is to get rid of the source and that means removing the lead pipes. That also means checking plumbing and what's in the house. This is a very site specific. Your neighbor could have no lead and you could or visa versa. It's almost a house by house determination because it's so site specific. It's not the source water or the main in the street that's affecting everyone. For lead, it is very specific to each residence.

  • 10:14:32

    KANGYou know, it's difficult as a homeowner, as somebody who runs a home, just thinking about whether your home is safe. Can you check? How can you make sure that the place that you live in will have water coming out of the pipe that's okay to use.

  • 10:14:47

    HAWKINSThat's a great question. I know this is a national program. In Washington, D.C., call our department at 202-354-3600. We have lead certified test kits. We will help you make sure you do it properly and we'll give you the results and help you respond if there's an issue. We want our customers to be confident. There are a lot of other steps you can take. I recommend that anyone listening to this show, if they're concerned, contact their water company. Not their lead company, their water company and ask to see whether there's also a monitoring program that they have.

  • 10:15:17 has a site that has a list of certified lead laboratories by state, which is also a good idea to go to a certified lead laboratory. You can also have a plumber come in and check your own pipes and fixtures. You can tell that a pipe in the basement when your water's coming in. A lead pipe is a softer metal. You could scratch it if you used a coin on it. That's an immediate indicator, but as...

  • 10:15:38

    KANGWhat would come off if you scratched it?

  • 10:15:40

    HAWKINSYou'd just see that the metal is scratchable. Lead is a slightly softer -- the lead pipes. But a certified plumber can come in and check your own fixtures. And we highly recommend it, particularly if it's a household with a pregnant woman or a child under the age of 6. Lead isn't good for anyone, but that's the target population of the greatest concern and I think it's a good idea for anyone in that target to take the steps.

  • 10:16:03

    KANGYou know, it seems like there's such difficulty even getting data. And Erik, can you talk a bit about why is the data on possible lead contaminants so hard to come by?

  • 10:16:14

    OLSONWell, there are a couple reasons. One is that a lot of water systems don't necessarily have great data on where the lead pipes are in their system. So some of these may have been installed 100 years ago or more so the water supply itself may not know or may not be releasing that information. The second reason is that a lot of the collection of that data, the way that it's done, doesn't necessarily detect the problem. So there are ways that you can test lead -- test for lead in your water and not necessarily find it.

  • 10:16:48

    OLSONAnd we are concerned that -- we think that although most water utilities are very responsible, it's not so hard to avoid finding lead if you don't want to find it. You can test at locations where it's less likely. You can use certain methods that make it less likely to find the lead. So we agree that it's important, especially for a young family with young children or a pregnant mom to have their water tested for lead.

  • 10:17:17

    KANGSo it's very disconcerting when you see that there are tests available and you see that there are even results, but then local officials and even regulatory bodies don't necessarily release the results. In Ohio, for example, 10 out of 14 water systems had been tested for lead contamination, but the leaders there did not notify people of their drinking water. What about the accountability of this? Why is this information not getting out?

  • 10:17:45

    OLSONWell, that's a serious problem. The rules do require release of that information to the consumers, but unfortunately sometimes there are delays and the water utilities in cities are not doing their job to tell their system...

  • 10:17:57

    KANGErik, we'll -- thank you, Erik, we'll finish that thought when we come back. Coming up, more of our conversation on the safety of our tap water.

  • 10:20:01

    KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang with the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Erik Olson, the director of the Health Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, George Hawkins, the CEO and general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority and James Salzman, a professor of environmental law at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, School of Law. He's also author of the book "Drinking Water: A History."

  • 10:20:32

    KANGJames from the studio in Santa Barbara, can you tell us briefly about the history of how our tap water system was built?

  • 10:20:39

    SALZMANSure, and I should note that the issues we're talking about have been basically been something that's been a challenge or discussed by every human settlement for the past 3,500 years. Right, every settled society has got to ensure it's going to have safe drinking water. Our story basically starts around the beginning of the 20th century, end of the 19th century, when the shift starts to happen from untreated water to chlorinated water. Jersey City is the first city in 1908 to do this, and it took a while. A lot of cities were hesitant to do this.

  • 10:21:11

    SALZMANAs terrible as the events are in Flint, it's important to keep this in perspective, as well. So 100 years ago, literally a century ago, Wilbur Wright died of typhoid. It was not at all uncommon for people to die of waterborne diseases. Today those diseases essentially in the U.S. are unheard of. Even 40 years ago, the Safe Drinking Water was adopted, there was a study that was done by the Public Health Service in 1969. They found that eight million Americans were drinking potentially dangerous water.

  • 10:21:41

    SALZMANAnd so it's not an exaggeration to say that in America today, more people are getting safe drinking water from their tap than ever before in human history. There's no question that there are challenges, and we have to remain vigilant, but I think as George said earlier, the water system, the municipal water system we have in America today, really is a modern marvel.

  • 10:22:01

    KANGIt's a modern miracle, as some people say. So -- and compared to other nations?

  • 10:22:06

    SALZMANSure, so I'm sure many of your listeners have traveled in developing countries, and what we take for granted, that you can basically drink your tap water pretty much anywhere you go, is not a given at all. About two billion, the numbers are rough, obviously, but about two billion people, excuse me, do not have access to treated drinking water. It's estimated that about half of the population in the developing world will suffer from a waterborne disease at some point in their lives.

  • 10:22:32

    SALZMANAnd so it's -- if you're talking about quality of life, unsafe drinking water is arguably the number one, the number one concern globally.

  • 10:22:38

    KANGHowever, when there are problems, the consequences are so dire, and that leads to these concerns. And we do have an email from a listener named Barry, who asks, do the counter water tests sold at retail stores work? What should I look for in test kits, and which brands? Maybe, Eric, you can take that question, please?

  • 10:23:00

    OLSONYeah, I guess in my estimation, it makes sense to go, as George was saying earlier, to a state-certified laboratory if you really want to be sure that the results that you're getting are accurate. Obviously there are over-the-counter tests that you can do that might give you some indication, but if you really want to be sure, it makes sense to test the water the way that a state-certified lab would do that, so you're sure you're getting accurate results.

  • 10:23:28

    KANGWould you agree with that, George?

  • 10:23:30

    HAWKINSI agree perhaps that a over-the-counter test might give you an indication of something, but I wouldn't rely on it for the positive outcome that you don't have an issue. I would want you have a state-certified lab, have your water utility, which has -- we have our own laboratory that we follow, and we actually do a more detailed test on lead than you'd get even at a certified lab in many cases. And -- now this is bunch of letters, but it's DWLABCERT, that stands for drinking water lab certification, there's a whole list by state of every state's certified lab, and if you really want to be sure, which I think is a very worthy step, particularly for those target audiences with young kids or pregnant women, I would go to a certified lab.

  • 10:24:16

    KANGSo that's what you can do as a consumer. In Flint, what should have been done there? What sort of testing should have been done and by whom when they noticed a spike in children's lead levels, when -- and that problem at that point was already too late. What should've been done, and what sort of protections are in place, George?

  • 10:24:34

    HAWKINSSure, and the issue to me is that -- what would be done in water utilities around the country was actually before any child would be at risk, which is to test a change in a core element of your treatment system before it gets to the customer. For example what we have, and most utilities across the country, as I said, are very careful about this, we have pipe loops that we have here in D.C., which mimic all the -- most of the various kinds of service lines that will deliver water to a house.

  • 10:25:01

    HAWKINSAnd before any change is made to the treatment system or otherwise, we test it in the pipe loops to get a good indication of what might happen in reality before there's ever a significant change made to the treatment system itself. And so the first step that should've happened is that there should've been significant testing of something as important as changing the source water for an entire population prior to it ever happening in the first place.

  • 10:25:26

    HAWKINSThen if you see that there's indications, there are steps that can be taken to reduce corrosion and to control the problems.

  • 10:25:32

    KANGIt -- we have another email from a listener, who says, it worries me that my granddaughter will live her knee-deep in water bottles. I understand that it's often not profitable to recycle them, and they go into landfill. I made the decision several years ago not to use bottled water. Jim, what are your thoughts on bottled water?

  • 10:25:55

    SALZMANSure, so when you're in a situation as Flint right now, and there's a legitimate reason to be concerned about the quality of the water you're drinking, then I think bottled water makes total sense. But the assumption that bottled water is going to be safer than tap water oftentimes is not going to be the case. Erik authored a big report a few years ago, looking at this. For one thing, a lot of bottled water is tap water. So that's an issue.

  • 10:26:18

    KANGWhat do you mean by that? It's just complete -- it's straight from the tap, or is it extra-filtered? How is it different, if at all?

  • 10:26:27

    SALZMANA lot of the big jugs you see in a supermarket are tap water. On some of the better known brands, they run the water a filtering process. So that's one issue. The other issue it that the regulation, the regulatory regime for testing bottled water is less strict than for testing tap water. The Food and Drug Administration administers bottled water. EPA administers tap water. But let me turn it over to Erik because he wrote a big report on this.

  • 10:26:52

    KANGYes, Erik.

  • 10:26:53

    OLSONYeah, I mean, basically he's exactly correct that bottled water, if you've got a serious problem, as they did in Flint, it's certainly a better alternative than, you know, having a known contaminated source be your source water. But bottled water really is no -- not necessarily any better or any safer than tap water in the general realm. The basic problem is that the regulatory system for it is fairly poor. It's really not any more stringent in some cases. There's a lot less testing of bottled water than there would be of tap water.

  • 10:27:29

    OLSONSo we do think that in an emergency or where you have a known contamination problem, it makes sense to use it, but as a regular, routine item, it's not necessarily a good investment.

  • 10:27:41

    KANGAnd George?

  • 10:27:41

    HAWKINSI should note that just in passing, the person who wrote is exactly right. Right now, it's hard to believe because when I grew up, if you went to a gas station and asked for water, they'd basically point you to the hose used to fill the radiator. Today bottled water and soda are basically head to head in terms of volume sold. It's remarkable.

  • 10:28:01

    KANGIn fact, is there anything lacking in bottled water that's in your -- that you would find in the water that comes out of your tap that's actually beneficial?

  • 10:28:10


  • 10:28:10

    KANGFluoride of course. George?

  • 10:28:11

    HAWKINSIt's a great question, and it goes back to, in the drinking water system in the United States, obviously in cases breaks down, but in most communities highly regulated, we test every single day at the treatment plant, we test all over the city in the distribution system to make sure that this water is safer, bottled water costs 1,000 times more than the water that you'll get right out of the tap. So it's incredibly expensive. It also has all the environmental consequences of that water being pumped out of the ground, being put into plastic bottles in large facilities, being shipped all over the country in trucks that are using up all sorts of fuels, being piled into stores and then being disposed, where we are being covered with plastic when it's simply not necessary.

  • 10:28:55

    HAWKINSIt is absolutely an option that if you really need to be mobile, and you don't have a recycled -- a bottle you can use over with you, it's an option, and in places where there's a clear risk, absolutely. But as a standard choice, tap water makes so much more sense, and in D.C. we have something called it a tap-it campaign. So you could walk around the city with an app on your phone that will show over 300 institutions that will refill your usable water bottle for free.

  • 10:29:18

    HAWKINSSo you just tap on it, oh there's one right down the street, that restaurant hopes that you might go in and buy something, but you get the water for free, and it's so much less expensive.

  • 10:29:26

    KANGYou just bringing your bottle in, put it right under the tap, and they'll fill it up for you? That's interesting. Going back to Flint, we have an email from Robert, and he asks, I keep hearing that the Flint River was not treated properly with anticorrosive chemicals. What exactly are those chemicals, and are they routinely added to other municipal water supplies? Eric?

  • 10:29:46

    OLSONYes, they are routinely added to a lot of other city's water supplies. Orthophosphate is one of the chemicals that's often used. George mentioned that earlier. It basically creates this thin layer of protection inside of the pipes. It reduces the amount of lead or the likelihood that lead is going to enter into the drinking water, and a lot of cities across the country use it.

  • 10:30:10

    KANGAnd George?

  • 10:30:11

    HAWKINSYeah, we do here in Washington, D.C. It's what I would call, without going into the chemistries of food-grade additive, you do have to be careful about anything that you put in the water, but used carefully and thoughtfully, it can reduce the potential for lead to very low numbers and is safe otherwise. As I said, to me that is a management factor until you get to the ultimate source, which is to remove the lead entirely. But it can reduce -- not to zero but to very small amounts until you get to the more permanent solution.

  • 10:30:42

    KANGErik, lead is only one of the contaminants that we need to be concerned about. What are some of the others?

  • 10:30:47

    OLSONWell, a couple of the ones that we're especially concerned about, perchlorate, which is a rocket fuel and explosives component, believe it or not, is found in at least 26 states' drinking water supplies, In over 16 million people's drinking water, according to EPA, or at least up to that number of people.

  • 10:31:10

    OLSONIt's very common because it was widely used, continues to be widely used in all sorts of applications, and it can cause problems with the thyroid and therefore can interfere with brain development in young children. And unfortunately it's not regulated at the federal level. EPA said five years ago, almost to the day five years ago, that it deserved regulation, that it created a public health problem, and the agency has not gotten around to even proposing a standard for it yet.

  • 10:31:39

    KANGI'm Cecilia Kang with the New York Times. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. If you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850. Or send an email to Find us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Going back to those other contaminants, can you detect those contaminants, Erik? Is there a way to test for them?

  • 10:32:03

    OLSONYou can detect them, and in fact there was a nationwide program that EPA required water systems across the country to detect perchlorate in their water and many other unregulated contaminants. It costs a little bit of money to do that, but it's very important to find out where it is, and a lot of water systems across the country, including D.C., I believe, do routine testing for even things that are not regulated.

  • 10:32:29

    KANGJim, there are also some contaminants that have been categorized as emerging, if you will. Can you describe some of these?

  • 10:32:35

    SALZMANSure, so there was a study in 2008 by the Associated Press, and they found 56 medications or byproducts in treated drinking water for metropolitan district areas, for waters that serve more than 40 million people. Some of this is because folks wash their meds down the toilet, others because the meds pass through our bodies and aren't completely metabolized. And that's going to be true for bottled water, generally, as well.

  • 10:32:59

    SALZMANThe fact that the meds are in our water, and there are personal care products in there, as well, that's only part of the story. The next question is what's the concentrations, right. These are very, very low concentrations, parts per million, parts per billion, and quite frankly it pushes the limits of epidemiology to know are these going to have significant effects, are there synergistic effects.

  • 10:33:22

    SALZMANAnd it gets us into the realm of the difference between safe drinking water and risk-free drinking water. The drinking water that we provide we think is safe. There are issues like perchlorate and such that Erik described, and those are real issues, but in general there are a whole number of things we could treat for that we don't, in large part because of cost. I mean, to a certain extent this is the same problem as bridges and roads. How much do we want to spend on this?

  • 10:33:47

    KANGYou know, you've all mentioned infrastructure as a really important focus in this crisis and the light that it shed on our aging, miraculous as Jim describes, but aging infrastructure, water infrastructure. Can you talk a little bit, George, about what you've learned in D.C. and the crisis we had here in the early 2000s and a little bit about what that exposed about our own infrastructure here in the D.C. area?

  • 10:34:14

    HAWKINSSure. D.C. unfortunately had a situation not unlike Flint, where a treatment process, instead of the source water being changed, the parallel change in D.C. was that the treatment process used to treat the water actually required by an EPA regulation, which is called the disinfectant byproduct rule, it required the treatment facility, which actually here in D.C. is a federal agency unlike anywhere else in the country, it's the Washington Aqueduct, run by the Army Corps, but they changed from chlorine to chloramine, and it was unknown at the time that chloramine caused the dissipation of this film inside the pipe in the same way that the source water change in Flint so that there was a spike of lead in the water in D.C.

  • 10:34:53

    HAWKINSAnd what it indicated as one, and that's why we now have these pipe loops, there is nothing that happens to our treatment system in D.C. that we don't experiment with prior to anything going to the customer, that was one lesson for us. The second is the manner in which we communicate about potential risk. One of the big issues in the D.C. situation was how quickly were customers informed that there was this risk, and that's a similar challenge in Flint.

  • 10:35:18

    HAWKINSWhat we do now in D.C. is if there is a potential of a risk to our customers, we'll call the risk and then verify, and fortunately I've done that five times since I've been there, three boil water alerts and two do not use, and in all five cases we didn't end up having a problem, but we call that alert first so our customers know that their safety is the highest priority.

  • 10:35:40

    HAWKINSIn all the cases, though, the challenge is we deliver this incredible service. The people of this profession are excellent. But the aging infrastructure is something our customers don't know about, and if all they hear about are the bad stories, we need customers to help us invest in this infrastructure, and we need to hear -- the work that's being done, what can be done, how we can solve this and work together for a solution. And that's our -- that's really what's before us today and what we do in D.C.

  • 10:36:07

    KANGWe hear a lot about the costs. I've seen so many different reports on how much it would actually cost to upgrade the nation's water infrastructure. Jim, what are your thoughts on what the cost would be, and who would pay for it?

  • 10:36:19

    SALZMANYeah, that really is the key question. So just to throw some numbers out there, EPA estimated about $384 billion for infrastructure needed through 2030. American Waterworks Association estimated closer to $1 trillion. And that -- I'm not even sure actually that included replacing the lead service lines, either.

  • 10:36:36

    OLSONAnd that was the drinking water side. So that was not the wastewater side, which is a whole other set of hundreds of billions of dollars.

  • 10:36:43

    SALZMANAnd so one thing that I've argued is that we need to change our fundamental sort of relationship to water. Instead of thinking of ourselves as consumer drinkers, we need to think of ourselves as citizen drinkers because ultimately the funding of our water system is a political decision, and we need to basically make the investment, as George said, that our forefathers made and foremothers made many years ago.

  • 10:37:05

    SALZMANThis is expensive, but if -- right now, for example, on average nationwide a water main breaks every two minutes. Right, that's a system that we need to address.

  • 10:37:16

    KANGAnd we'll come back to that. Coming up with your calls and questions. Please stay tuned.

  • 10:40:03

    KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang with the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Erik Olson, who is the Director of the Health Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. George Hawkins is the CEO and General Manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. And James Salzman, a Professor of Environmental Law at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara. He joins us from a studio in Santa Barbara.

  • 10:40:30

    KANGWe are going to go to some calls now. We have Meghan in Flint, Michigan. She's a child therapist there.

  • 10:40:40


  • 10:40:41

    KANGHello, Meghan. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:43

    MEGHANYes, thank you. I think one of the most overwhelming and infuriating pieces of this whole experience for me and the kids that we work with are the pervasive and long term developmental effects that are going to be more challenges for these families to face going forward. And in a community that is already systematically traumatized at many, many levels, this just -- just speaks to how many challenges these families face every day, but they can't even drink their own water.

  • 10:41:13

    MEGHANAnd my hope is that this crisis just leads to awareness of the level of trauma that these families face and the trust that needs to be built from the bottom up, literally. And it brings support and resources long after the pipes have been fixed.

  • 10:41:31

    KANGThank you so much, Meghan. George, definitely, trust, once trust taken away, it's really hard to rebuild.

  • 10:41:37

    HAWKINSIt's -- she's exactly right and this goes back to a point Eric made right out of the -- right at the beginning. For D.C. water, it's been 10, 15 years to rebuild confidence the public has in the system that delivers the water. So, it really is tragic for the water system as a whole, particularly since the water authorities across the country perform so well as a practical matter. But the challenge that is referenced here is absolutely right. We had a program to change out the service lines, which is that connection from the main to the dwelling.

  • 10:42:06

    HAWKINSAnd there's a public portion of the service line, which is in public space, owned by the city, essentially. And then the private line, which a privately owned part of the system and we are not able to require the private line to be replaced. And we found in most cases, the home owner did not replace the private line and if there's one common issue, it was the expense. And the challenge that this kind of ailment, and it seems to be developmental, to be hitting lower income communities that don't have the resources to do these changes.

  • 10:42:38

    HAWKINSThey're not cheap. You got to dig up your front lawn, you got to change your pipes, you may change fixtures in your home and for a household with low income that is barely getting by, it's adding a level of burden to a life that's already very stressed and we see that in D.C. And I think that's something that absolutely needs focus and to be addressed.

  • 10:42:54


  • 10:42:55

    OLSONAbsolutely. This is a classic environmental injustice where you've got lower income communities of color often that have the biggest burden of these problems. And there needs to be a solution with some public funding to help replace those old lead service lines. Because otherwise, we're going to continue having this problem across the country.

  • 10:43:17

    KANGGoing back...

  • 10:43:17

    HAWKINSAnd as an added challenge...

  • 10:43:18


  • 10:43:18 well, just to cut in for a quick sec, and that, in terms of the poverty, in many of these cases, it's a landlord/renter situation and so the landlords don't have a direct incentive, because they're not the ones who are drinking the water.

  • 10:43:31

    KANGIn the landlord/renter relationship, how does the rentee find out if their tap water's safe?

  • 10:43:40

    OLSONThey often do not. They often will not be directly informed, although they're supposed to be told if their tap itself is tested and contaminated. They may not find out that there's a problem in their building or in their community, so it's a serious problem.

  • 10:43:59

    KANGWe have another caller. Peggy from Toledo, Ohio. Peggy, you're on the air.

  • 10:44:05


  • 10:44:06

    KANGHello, Peggy. Please, go ahead.

  • 10:44:08

    PEGGYHi. In August of 2014, the city of Toledo and most of Northwestern Ohio woke up to no drinkable water. I didn't use the water in my household to shower or wash clothes or do anything for, certainly not drink, for about two weeks, because of an algal bloom on Lake Erie. We are in the shallowest part of the shallowest of the Great Lakes, but actually, algal blooms have been seen on Lake Superior, the coldest of the Great Lakes. And so, the reason that many of us are coming to believe that the algal blooms are happening is because the level of industry, factory farming.

  • 10:44:49

    PEGGYWhere manure lagoons are, you know, getting directly to the ground water or are being sprayed. The manure -- picture a manure lagoon, one that I just looked at is the size of four football fields, and it is being sprayed in the air, eventually, of course, getting to ground water and all of the water sheds that feed the Maumee watershed are involved. And that's Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

  • 10:45:16

    KANGAnd Peggy, when you woke up that day, how were you made aware that the water was not useable?

  • 10:45:21

    PEGGYWell, social media, certainly, I don't do social media, but, you know, everybody knew because of social media. The city had announced overnight that the water was not drinkable. This was a Saturday morning. And the run on the water supply on the shelves, you know, water, was incredible. And, you know, everybody was running around frantically all day Saturday trying to find water. Eventually, water was brought in from parts wherever. But my point is that we have been -- there is a focal group of people that has been lobbying our city council.

  • 10:45:51

    PEGGYOur three county commissioners have already passed a resolution to have the EPA come in and declare the Maumee Bay as an impaired watershed.

  • 10:46:00

    KANGThank you, Peggy. Erik.

  • 10:46:02

    OLSONWell, this is a huge problem. It's called hazardous algal blooms and these basically are recurring problems in a lot of cites across the US. Toledo had one of the most serious problems, and they often happen during the summer when the weather warms up and what happens is you've got these huge factory farms, generally, are the source. And the application of manure, it gets out into the waterways, it gets into the ground water and eventually works its way into the source of drinking water and it creates the conditions for algae to grow.

  • 10:46:36

    OLSONIt can contaminate the water seriously. It's not regulated in the tap water, so this is another area, we think strongly EPA needs to have a standard for these algae toxins, algal toxins that kind of render the water undrinkable.

  • 10:46:52


  • 10:46:52

    HAWKINSYeah, it's -- Peggy is right and points to a very broad and significant issue. D.C. water runs the largest advanced waste water plant in the world at Blue Plains, which is the very southern tip of D.C. We treat between 3 and 370 million gallons of flow. We call it enriched water because we're now turning it into power. But we are heavily regulated. It's almost like the comparison between bottled water and the water in our tap. Heavily regulated with every bit of emissions from that plant, discharges that go into the Potomac.

  • 10:47:21

    HAWKINSA lot of the pollutants that we're seeing in our water bodies now are what are running off of farm fields or off of factory farms or off of parking lots. And that does not get treated and has controlled the manner in which the urban collection system is. And if we're gonna improve water quality in the United States, there has to be equal level of attention to both kinds of sources of pollutants. And that's exactly right. The runoff -- agriculture's important, obviously, we all rely on it.

  • 10:47:47

    HAWKINSIt's a fundamental industry to us, but making sure that it's done safely is a priority for the country in the same way our facility being regulated properly, which is right, is also done.

  • 10:47:57

    KANGWe have an email from Morgan in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Morgan writes, what do you do if you find out that your water is contaminated? What immediately is the next step? Jim.

  • 10:48:09

    SALZMANI think I'm actually going to pass that to George. I think he deals with that every day.

  • 10:48:12

    KANGPass to George.

  • 10:48:13

    HAWKINSCall comes in to us. That is a case where, if there's an immediate contamination problem, we will -- we recommend bottled water. That is a case where bottled water is the right first solution, particularly if it's not certain what the problem is and where it's coming from. If it's a contamination that we know of in the system, we'll help deliver the bottled water itself at a certain point, to make sure there's safe water on hand. Then the second question would be to determine where the source -- what is the contamination and where is the source?

  • 10:48:37

    HAWKINSWe can help a customer do that, that a registered plumber can also undertake that. If it's lead, it's probably a fixture of the pipe and then the third is to either manage or eliminate the source. And that may take some period of time. It all depends on what's happening. Calling your plumber, calling your own water authority are two of the high priorities. And if you have a contamination problem, take the safe step first and find out what the source is and let's get rid of it.

  • 10:49:03

    KANGWe're going to take another call from Gary in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Hello Gary, you're on the air.

  • 10:49:09

    GARYYes, thank you. I wanted to mention that just because you get a new water line doesn't mean you're gonna -- not gonna have chemical contaminants. The city that I get water from put in a new plastic line and the water for the first couple of months was totally undrinkable because of a chemical called DEHA, which is used as a plasticizer in the plastic. And it is a proven endocrine disrupter. It is banned in Europe. And yet, it is put in the pipes that provide our drinking water. So...

  • 10:49:46

    KANGErik. Another example of a separate type of contaminant.

  • 10:49:50

    OLSONRight. Well, plastic piping is fairly widely used in the United States now and there are concerns about some of the components in plastic piping. We certainly believe that using copper or metal pipe is probably a better idea than using plastic pipe. It lasts longer and you're not going to get those plasticizers in your water. But they are fairly widely used and I'm sure George may have a view on that as well.

  • 10:50:19

    HAWKINSWell, the caller is exactly right on a whole other front. Which is even when you'd say on the lead issue, which we've been focusing on, you replace the lead lines on the public and the private side, you could still have temporary spikes in lead in home after the replacement is done because there may have been lead that has been captured in the fixtures in the home. So what we do in cases where we do lead service line replaces, whether they're partial -- partial would mean only the public side is replaced.

  • 10:50:45

    HAWKINSOr full, meaning the public and private, is we'll provide a lead certified filter to that customer for six months to make sure that anything that's jostled in the construction or during the process itself will come back down, cause that should always be a risk. If you have work done to your water system, be vigilant right after the work, cause anything that might have been contained might be jostled loose, even if you've updated the system and improved it. So, that's a good call.

  • 10:51:11

    KANGWe're going to go to another call. Sheryl from Washington, D.C. Hello Sheryl, you're on the air.

  • 10:51:16

    SHERYLYes, good. Good afternoon, and thank you.

  • 10:51:19

    KANGGood afternoon.

  • 10:51:19

    SHERYLFor this panel. This is a great panel. I'd like to know, when there's a chlorine smell in the water, I'd like to know is this a sign of water treatment? And I'd also like to know what's the effect on the public health and is there any long term data that you could maybe discuss with regards to my question? Thank you.

  • 10:51:41

    KANGThank you. I'm Cecilia Kang. You're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Erik, the smell of chlorine. I mean, it's so detectable. Is it something to be worried about?

  • 10:51:51

    OLSONWell, chlorine itself is used to kill the bugs in your water and certainly, you don't want to have bugs in your water. The issue becomes what was mentioned earlier, these byproducts of disinfection. When the chlorine mixes with organic matter, like broken down leaves and so on in the source water, you can create these byproducts of disinfection, some of which have been linked to cancer and other health effects. So, EPA has adopted rules to crack down on that, those byproducts and reduce the levels.

  • 10:52:22

    OLSONSo, some water systems have made changes in how they treat their water to reduce those byproduct levels. And in some cities, it's been very successful to reduce them. Other cities, less so.

  • 10:52:32


  • 10:52:33

    HAWKINSYeah, and for Sheryl, in particular, here in Washington, D.C., it sounds like you're one of our customers, we use chloramine. That was the change made from chlorine to chloramine to reduce disinfectant byproducts. But twice, once a year in the spring, they call it our spring cleaning, for a temporary period of time, switch back to chlorine, still at safe levels, but it adds a different and a level of protection. We try to alert our customers that when that's coming, so there is a period of time every spring when we would expect, perhaps, a customer to detect a little bit of chlorine.

  • 10:53:01

    HAWKINSSo in D.C., there's a specific reason for it for a specific time. But Erik is exactly right. There's -- chlorine is used properly, is safe and being done for a good reason, but there are new ways to treat water. We're using chloramine to reduce some of the risks. In most cases, that's how it's done.

  • 10:53:17

    KANGDavid in Chicago asks, in an email, about fluoride. Can your guests please weigh in on the controversy? I don't know, is it controversial? Of adding fluoride to the water supply. Is it really a necessity? George?

  • 10:53:30

    HAWKINSIt is a controversy. We hear it all time. At the moment, we follow the Centers for Disease Control and the Dental Association's recommendation. The levels of fluoride used in treatment in D.C. are now at .7 mg per liter, which used to be the low end of the recommended dosage. And we're now, the country itself has been redefined at a lower end. There are those who believe that is a risk and it is a fruitful debate. The recommendation to us is still that the benefit to teeth, particularly to children and those who might not have as much dental care is better than the potential risk.

  • 10:54:02

    HAWKINSBut it's something we watch very vigilantly to see what the latest epidemiological studies would say.

  • 10:54:09

    KANGWe have another call from Davon in Blacksburg, Virginia. Davon, you're on the air. Hello.

  • 10:54:14

    DAVONHi. Thank you. I wanted to go back to the perchlorate that you mentioned. I live outside of what's been the largest polluter in the state of Virginia for the last 13 years in a row. And similar to communities around other military bases, perchlorate, the Army has identified as a serious contaminant there. This happens to be Blacksburg, where Mark Edwards teaches and the Radford Army Ammunition Plant is a known point source of perchlorate. We have the highest rate of thyroid cancer in the state, nearly twice the national average.

  • 10:54:52

    DAVONAnd my understanding was the Department of Defense lobbied not to have perchlorate included in the Safe Drinking Water Act. So, I'm wondering, you know, is there a low cost test for perchlorate? How can communities, you know, get our local water providers to start testing for that when we know that we're, you know, near a point source? In our case, a local non-profit even tested five private wells and found perchlorate in four out of five of them.

  • 10:55:19

    KANGThank you, Davon. Erik, please.

  • 10:55:22

    OLSONPerchlorate definitely is an issue all across the country. As I mentioned earlier, if you go to and, or Google perchlorate and NRDC, you'll see several reports about this issue. Clearly, the problem is that it's not regulated right now. EPA has not required it to be controlled and therefore, it can appear in drinking water without any controls. So, there are tests that can be done. They're not cheap, but you can get your water tested for perchlorate and also, you should check with your drinking water supplier. Many of them do test for perchlorate. Ask for the results.

  • 10:55:57

    KANGAll three of my guests, I'd like to ask you what does the current attention on water safety, triggered by the crisis in Flint, what will this result in? Will this result in some sort of better testing system, more accountability? Perhaps more rules at the EPA. We'll start with you, Jim.

  • 10:56:13

    SALZMANYeah, I think that, I mean, it's a tragedy, but it presents an opportunity. And the opportunity is that it makes us think carefully and recognize what we've always taken for granted, which is safe drinking water. And as I said, that's a remarkable achievement, but we have to remain vigilant, and I think that the good that may come out of this is again, focusing people to think more as citizen drinkers and basically, not only to demand accountability but also to demand adequate support for the systems.

  • 10:56:41

    OLSONYeah, I, to me, it highlights, first, I say over and over that the profession of, in water utilities are by people who are tremendous public servants and do an excellent job across the country in most cases. They work hard every day. But we need investment in water systems at the local, state and federal level. Everyone's going to need to be involved, including the customer base. So, if you're a customer and you're concerned about a small increase in your rates, the reason we seek to increase rates is not because we're enriching public enterprises.

  • 10:57:17

    HAWKINSWe're seeking to reinvest in these systems and to rebuild them and we think the more people know about their systems, the more they're likely to agree to that.

  • 10:57:18

    KANGAnd Erik, really quickly.

  • 10:57:19

    OLSONWell, it is a miracle, but it's fading. It's like a car that's 50 years old that we haven't been maintaining. We've got to invest in it, update it, in order to appreciate the water supply that we have.

  • 10:57:29

    KANGThank you to my guests. I'm Cecilia Kang, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you for listening.

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