Americans Prefer Their Water Clean, But Not Pure

When a chemical spill leaked into West Virginia's Elk River last week, people were warned not to drink, cook or even wash their clothes in the water. NPR's Lynn Neary speaks with James Salzman, author of the book Drinking Water: A History, about the fairly recent history of the government regulating drinking water.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. When a chemical spill leaked into West Virginia's Elk River last week, people were warned not to cook with or even wash their clothes in the water. It was only safe for flushing toilets. Yesterday afternoon, West Virginia authorities announced that thousands more customers could resume using tap water, though pregnant women were urged to stick with bottled water. And underlining the extent of the damage, the company that's been blamed for the chemical spill filed for bankruptcy yesterday. Americans have come to expect that the water flowing through their pipes is safe, but our next guest tells us clean tap water is a fairly recent development. Jim Salzman is the author of the book "Drinking Water: A History" and a professor of environmental law at Duke University. I asked him when it became standard for American tap water to be considered clean.

JIM SALZMAN: Well, what's interesting is that to a certain extent it's always been considered clean and drinkable. What's changed is our notions of what's safe. So, for example, if you and I could go back in a time capsule to, say, London about 160 years ago, there was a well that was there in the middle of London called Soho Pump, and it had some of the best drinking water in the whole city. Well, right next to it was a pit that was used basically for dumping carcasses, soiled nappies and everything. I couldn't pay you enough to drink that water yet at the time it was prized water.

NEARY: So, when exactly did federal regulation of drinking water begin in this country?

SALZMAN: Well, it turns out it's the 100th anniversary of the first public health service standards for drinking water. And the concern at the time was the federal government was not willing to tell states and towns, municipalities you have to treat your water. So, what they did was they required interstate common carriers, essentially trains, buses, ships, to have water that met these standards, which essentially meant chlorinated water. But the fact is the trains and the buses went through so many towns and cities that this was real impetus for those cities to actually add chlorination to their own drinking water supplies.

NEARY: So, up to a certain point, people thought their water was safe and clean but it really wasn't. And then once people began to understand that though, did they become more demanding about their water? Is that what happened?

SALZMAN: Well, it's a really interesting transition. So, 1908, the very first city in the U.S., Jersey City, decides to chlorinate its drinking water. And chlorine is what really changes things dramatically. And what's interesting, from today's perspective, is that chlorination actually knocked the bottom out of the bottled water market.

NEARY: What do you mean it knocked the - 'cause I always think of the bottled water market as being quite new.

SALZMAN: Well, it's ironic. There was a big bottled water market in the U.S. late 19th, early 20th century. It was basically seen as healthier, better for you. And this newfangled chlorination essentially made water really safe to drink for the first time, in some respects, ever. And as a result, tap water became a newfangled thing, which is very ironic, considering the reputation today of bottled water versus tap water.

NEARY: Yeah. Why did bottled water become popular again?

SALZMAN: So, it was popular to a certain extent throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. Bottled water in the sort of single serve and liter size that we think of really was a niche market in restaurants until the late 1970s. And Perrier really for the very first time put a lot of money into their marketing budget and they got very lucky with their timing, 'cause it coincided with the fitness craze. I mean, think about it. Jane Fonda and aerobics. And what happens to really push it long is that Nestle ends up getting in the act with Perrier; Coke launches Dasani; Pepsi launches Aquafina. And now all of the sudden what you have is mass distribution channels. Today - get this - per second on average, 1,500 bottles of water are being opened nationwide.

NEARY: Is there any such thing as truly pure water from any source, bottled or tap?

SALZMAN: Well, it's called distilled water, sure. It ends up actually not tasting very good. It's funny actually - for Aquafina and Dasani and actually the major bottled water brands, that's actually tap water that is passed through very fine filters. It's called reverse osmosis. And then the water actually is too clean to taste good. So, in the industry they call it pixie dust - they put some minerals actually back into the water to improve the taste.

NEARY: So, clean water tastes bad.

(LAUGHTER)

SALZMAN: Well, I mean, what's clean water, right? I mean, the water that we have out of our tap is clean. The water that we have out of bottled water is clean, right? The question is do you want water that has no contaminants in it all, which would be distilled, or water that's safe to drink? And the fact is we could certainly treat water if we wanted to, to the point where there's nothing in it, but we wouldn't be willing to pay the cost.

NEARY: So, what happened in West Virginia certainly doesn't instill confidence necessarily in a municipal water system I would think.

SALZMAN: The fact that this happens so infrequently actually I think is a testament to the quality of our drinking water. I mean, it's quite remarkable. I could go anywhere in the U.S. and have some tap water and not really give a second thought about its quality. I can't do that in most parts of the world. You know, there's no question you're right. We have to remain vigilant. There are always sources of contamination that water providers have to be worried about - natural sources, microbes, pathogens, bacteria and such. And then there are obviously these accidents. One of the reasons this chemical got into the system so quickly is that no one expected it to be in the water. And so the treatment system wasn't set up to deal with it.

NEARY: Yeah. And now they're telling pregnant women you may still not want to drink this water, although other people can. And that, I think, makes people feel like, well, what do you mean?

SALZMAN: Think about this, though. I mean, there are over 60,000 chemicals in commerce in the United States and only a fraction of those have had really significant toxicity testing. And so the chemical that's spilled here is something that's used to, you know, to treat coal. It's not something you'd expect to find in your drinking water. And that's not a justification for why we don't have the data, because we should have it. It ended up in our drinking water. But the scale of the problem I think is important to keep in mind as well.

NEARY: Jim Salzman is the author of "Drinking Water: A History." Thanks so much for being with us.

SALZMAN: Thanks.

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