Overloaded Sewers Lead To 'Toxic Waters' New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg has reported that human excrement and dangerous chemicals are making their way into our waterways and then into our drinking water. Duhigg returns to Fresh Air to talk the problems with our nation's sewer system.
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Overloaded Sewers Lead To 'Toxic Waters'

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Overloaded Sewers Lead To 'Toxic Waters'

Overloaded Sewers Lead To 'Toxic Waters'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you ever wonder what's in your tap water and are a little suspicious of it, this next interview might make you even more skeptical. Tap water is regulated by the Clean Water Act, but according to a front page article in today's New York Times, tap water that is legal may still be unhealthy.

The article is part of the series "Toxic Waters," reported by my guest, Charles Duhigg. He joined us in October to talk about earlier articles in the series. Today, we'll discuss his new article on tap water and his recent article about why many sewer systems are out of date and overwhelmed and how that's resulting in sewage backing up into basements and poisoning waterways.

Charles Duhigg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So, according to your investigation, just because water is officially legal and officially safe, it isn't necessarily safe. How much of America do you think is drinking officially safe but in reality not-so-safe water?

Mr. CHARLES DUHIGG (Reporter, New York Times): Well, we went out and we got millions and millions of vials from every single state in the country to test exactly what's in the water that's being delivered to residents. And we looked for over 300 different contaminants, and what we found was that there's basically two types of things that are in people's water. And about 69 million Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains things that scientists say pose health risks.

Some of those things are regulated contaminants, it's actually things that the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the nation's largest law and only law dealing with tap water - things that Safe Drinking Water Act says have to be limited but where scientists say those limits are too lax and things that are allowed to get into water are dangerous, even though it's technically legal.

And then there's hundreds and hundreds of other chemicals that are completely unregulated and which, again, scientists say are dangerous. And for those, there's nothing to keep them out at all.

GROSS: You say there's only 91 contaminants that are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. What's left that's not regulated?

Mr. DUHIGG: Literally thousands and thousands of chemicals. There's 60,000 chemicals that are used in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, most of those are things that are used in small amounts, or maybe they don't get into water supplies, and a lot of them have never been tested. So they might be perfectly safe.

But some of the things that aren't regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the number one thing that people talk about is a chemical named perchlorate, which is an additive that they put into rocket fuels. They use this a lot when they used to store munitions, when they make fireworks, for a whole bunch of other types of manufacturing. And military bases would store rockets and the perchlorate would leak out.

And perchlorate's the type of thing that once it gets into the water, it spreads very, very quickly. And scientists have done experiments to kind of find out what perchlorate does and in a sort of roundabout way, particularly for pregnant women, it can stop the production of iodine, which is critical for when fetuses are developing their nervous systems. It's also very dangerous for children because when you're growing as a child or an infant, iodine is an important part of developing the growth process.

Perchlorate is completely unregulated, and the CDC actually just last week did a study where they were looking to see how much perchlorate were in people's bodies, and they couldn't find one person who didn't have perchlorate in their tissue samples.


Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah.

GROSS: And you say that defense officials and military contractors have tried to downplay this and tried to prevent regulation, but it sounds like maybe that's changing.

Mr. DUHIGG: For a number of years, the military and defense contractors were adamantly opposed to any regulation of perchlorate. And the reason why, it didn't have anything to do with drinking water, it's because if there was regulation of perchlorate, they would have to clean up a lot of areas around bases and a lot of manufacturing sites.

Now since then, since about 2005, the military has changed its attitude on this. And since Lisa Jackson took over the EPA under President Obama - she's the President Obama appointee to the EPA - they've said that they intend to decide if they're going to regulate perchlorate by next year, and chances are they are going to regulate it.

But yeah, for a long time, there was a very significant pushback. And we see this happening for other chemicals, as well. The arsenic, for instance, right now, which is the number one contaminant that you find in Superfund sites, there's a new assessment at the EPA saying that arsenic is much more toxic than previously thought. But there's a lot of pushback on that and, again, it has really nothing to do with drinking water, as much as if arsenic is deemed more toxic, then companies are going to have spend a lot more money cleaning Superfund sites. And by the same token, if arsenic is deemed more toxic, then they're going to change the drinking water regulations.

GROSS: Why is arsenic the most commonly found chemical at Superfund sites?

Mr. DUHIGG: In part because arsenic occurs almost everywhere and because it's used so much in so many different types of manufacturing. It's a very, very dangerous chemical. It's one of the most carcinogenic contaminants that you could ever come into contact with, but it occurs naturally throughout the Southwest, New Mexico, where I'm actually from, there's just large levels of naturally occurring arsenic.

In addition, tons of industries use it. Semiconductor manufacturing, a lot of other manufacturing plants need arsenic to clean metals. And so as a result, there's just a lot of arsenic in the United States. But it's the type of thing that when you drink - and we're learning more and more about this every year, when you consume it through water, it's been linked to lung cancer, to bladder cancer and at very, very small concentrations.

GROSS: So what is the EPA planning to do to regulate arsenic?

Mr. DUHIGG: Well, it's an interesting question, and they won't say because they haven't decided yet themselves, and there's a lot of regulatory processes they have to go through. So if they did say, they'd get in a lot of trouble without going through all the steps.

But what's happened is, in 2000, there was a big push to tighten the standard on arsenic and the EPA said that they wanted to set the standard for arsenic in drinking water at five parts per billion, which is about equal to a drop of arsenic in 50 drums of water. Industry, as well as water systems, started pushing back. And the EPA eventually relented and said that they were going to set it 10 parts per billion, double the standard that they had proposed earlier.

Since then, there's been numerous studies that have gone out and have said, let's look at the science and really try and figure this out. And the consensus is that at 10 parts per billion, that poses a risk of about one in 600 people getting cancer. So if you lived in a town of, say, you know, 1,200 people, 1,800 people and everyone was drinking water at the standard, with 10 parts per billion arsenic, over the lifetime, three of those people would get cancer just from arsenic in their drinking water alone. Other people would obviously get cancer from other things.

But it's very, very carcinogenic. And so the EPA has put out a draft assessment or is - internally has a draft assessment, it hasn't been released but we got a confidential copy of it, that would say that arsenic - recognized that arsenic is much, much more toxic at much smaller levels.

If that standard was published, and there's a lot of industries and people trying to prevent it from being published, but if was published, it would form the basis for every single regulatory decision regarding arsenic, including for drinking water. And so it's very likely that we would see the drinking water standard for arsenic come down.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. He's investigative reporter for the New York Times, and we're talking about his latest articles in his series about chemicals and other toxins in American waters.

You write about a reservoir in Los Angeles in which bromates formed as a result of chemicals mixing with the sunlight. Would you explain the process that formed these bromates and what bromates are and why we need to worry about them?

Mr. DUHIGG: Bromates are a cancer-causing compound that - and it's kind of interesting exactly what happened here. L.A. used to have most of its water coming from the eastern Sierra Mountains, which was very, very pure and very, very clean, but because of water rights and a couple of other issues, they lost access to some of those sources. So they started using water from the San Fernando Basin, which is in Los Angeles and has Superfund sites in it. It's a very polluted area.

And then they started buying water from upstate California and from out of state. And they found that the water that they were buying had chemicals in it that weren't dangerous on their own, but when those chemicals went through the cleaning process, they were mixed with ozone, which is a cleaning material. And then when they went into reservoirs, they were hit by sunlight, and the reaction of the sunlight on the ozone and these other chemicals were to form the bromates. And bromates are, in fact, cancer-causing.

Now, the rules for the Safe Drinking Water Act are, when the water leaves your treatment facility, you have to look for bromates. But when the water left the treatment facility, it hadn't been exposed to sunlight yet, and so as a result, they didn't see the bromates. And there was no rule requiring them to test the water in the distribution pipes. And so that's why these bromates formed and that's why they completely missed them.

GROSS: So how did they discover they were there?

Mr. DUHIGG: A local laboratory called them up one day and said, hey, look, you know, we've been using tap water for our experiments and we analyze the tap water before the experiment just to know what's in there, and we found all of these bromates, which cause cancer. Are you aware of that? And the L.A. water system said, no, we didn't know that at all.

GROSS: So what did L.A. do about it?

Mr. DUHIGG: Well, the first thing that they did is they emptied some of their reservoirs. So they dumped about 600 million gallons of drinking water into the ocean because it was too contaminated. But they need those reservoirs. They were going to refill them. And so they came up with this idea to cover some of the reservoirs with these black balls, black plastic balls, kind of like when you go to McDonald's, the ball pits in the playground for kids, they're just like that. And they took those and they flooded some of the reservoirs with them and basically formed a blanket on top of the water of these black plastic balls.

GROSS: They floated on top of the water?

Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah, yeah. I mean, in fact, we have photographs in the paper of them putting these things in. It's just amazing. And it looks like, you know, once you've flooded the entire thing, like there's a big black sheet on top of the reservoir that's kind of pimply.

GROSS: Nice. Did it work?

Mr. DUHIGG: It worked. It worked. It blocks the water from the sunshine. Unfortunately, it also drew numerous complaints from residents who lived around the reservoir.

This is an area of Los Angeles that I actually liked in for a little while named Silverlake, and it's a very hip area. The homes overlook the reservoir. It's a huge reservoir. It's beautiful. And people like it because they like to look at the water, and when the water was covered by this - what people described to me as looking like a big, plastic trash dump, they became very upset. And they began complaining to Los Angeles and to the regulators and saying, look, if the water is legal by the Safe Drinking Water Act, why are you spending millions of dollars and ruining our view to cover it with all these plastic balls?

And what the city said in response was, we want your water to be safer than is required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. We want to go beyond what's legally mandated. But that does not appease residents who say if it's safe, it must be legal, and if it's legal, why are you ruining my view and spending my money?

GROSS: But that gets right to the crux of the article that you just wrote, which is, if it's legal, it's not necessarily safe.

Mr. DUHIGG: Right, but most people in the U.S. don't know that and with good reason. You know, we've said for years that the United States has the cleanest drinking water in the world. And in many parts of the U.S., that's true, and for a long time that was true, particularly when you look at - you know, other nations still deal with people getting microbial diseases because of human waste in their drinking water on a regular basis.

The U.S. for a long time dealt with most of those problems and eradicated them, and it was an amazing public health victory. But we have not updated the Safe Drinking Water Act since - we haven't added one chemical since 2000 to the Safe Drinking Water Act. There are some standards that were set in the 1970s and the 1980s that we now know, science tells us those chemicals are much more dangerous in smaller concentrations, but the act itself hasn't been updated to reflect that. And so you can't really say that America has the safest drinking water in the world anymore because we just don't know a lot of what's in our drinking water.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. We're talking about his series "Toxic Waters." His front page article today is about how legal tap water may still pose health risks because the law regulating it is so out of date. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Charles Duhigg, and he's investigative reporter for the New York Times. We're talking about his latest articles in his series about chemicals and other toxins in American waters.

You wrote an article recently about sewer systems in America, particularly ones in major cities where the sewer system infrastructure is kind of old and it's a little bit gross.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You profiled one water pollution control plant where much of Brooklyn's sewage is treated. And I'd like you to describe what happens there when there's heavy rain.

Mr. DUHIGG: Sure, and this is actually - this is where my sewer goes. I actually live in the service area of this plant.

GROSS: Great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUHIGG: And it's this huge plant and it's beautiful. It's right on the edge of Brooklyn, right on the water. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the coast.

New York has an old sewer system. And like a lot of cities that have old sewer systems, the sewer system was designed with one thing in mind originally, which was take human waste and get it away from people because if you live near your waste, cholera epidemics break out and other diseases. So they built this amazingly complicated - and for its time, this was the 1840s and 1850s - for its time, amazingly sophisticated system of underground pipes that use gravity to take sewage away from people and dump it into the ocean.

Fast forward a century, and you're living in a new nation, a nation that doesn't worry so much about taking waste away from people but also worries about all types of other pollution that gets into those pipes, including rainwater. Because when it rains in New York, in particular, we have so many streets and so many low points that if you just let the water pool up, traffic can't go through, subways shut down, et cetera.

So there was a decision made to take all the rainwater and put it into the same underground pipes that the sewage was running through. The problem is that when it rains too much, essentially those pipes become overwhelmed and the plants that are at the end of the pipes that are supposed to treat all of the sewage to make it safe before it's dumped into the ocean, those plants become overwhelmed. And at some point, they just have to lower the gates and the water starts coming out of the pipes through these unregulated points, these escape valves that have been built into the system.

They're called sewer overflows, and it begins dumping sewage and anything else that you flushed down the toilet or threw into a grate, it begins dumping that directly into the ocean and sometimes into streets and basements without treating it first.

GROSS: How does it get into streets and basements?

Mr. DUHIGG: Basically because the system becomes overloaded. I mean, it's kind of like if you - imagine the pipes in your own house. If everyone was to flush their toilet at the same time, there's just not enough capacity in the pipe. The pipe isn't big enough to take all of that, and so some of it's going to have to jettison up somewhere. And for most people, if you have a lowered, a sunk basement or something like that, you probably have some type of little portal in the bottom of it where overflows can come up.

The same thing is true of a lot of the manholes on some streets or other places. If you overload the system, there's just too much pressure, the water has to go somewhere, and it will find the easiest escape point, which is usually the weakest link in the system, whether that be a rusty pipe in your walls or a drain in your basement or a manhole on the street.

GROSS: This is such a great illustration of why infrastructure is so important and why we have to deal with the old infrastructures in a lot of America's cities. How many cities would you say have the kind of sewer system that you're describing, that doesn't handle the capacity of the users anymore?

Mr. DUHIGG: Well, there's 770 sewer systems, about 770 sewer systems, that have combined storm water and sewage, so that whenever it rains, or very frequently when it rains, you see overflows. And in New York for instance, it overflows about every other time it rains. For the rest of the country, they don't necessarily have combined systems, but they might very well have systems that simply have not kept up with the growth of the population.

So you see this a lot, for instance, in these fast-growing cities like, you know, in Arizona and some parts of Nevada, where they installed the sewer system assuming that they were going to have 10,000 people living in a particular area, and now we have 50,000 people living there. And when you're developing and growing neighborhoods, there's a tension. Are you going to spend some money ripping up pipes underground and closing down streets for three days so that you can replace the sewage system, or you going to spend all that money on planting trees and building parks and brand new schools?

In the 1970s and the 1980s, Congress saw that there was a real problem with sewer systems. So they gave away about $60 billion to cities to help them upgrade their sewer systems. But that was 20 or 25 years ago now, and there's been a lot of population growth since then. And so these problems are starting to re-emerge, and it's just not popular to do infrastructure projects, particularly infrastructure projects that doesn't build anything new.

A politician would love to put their name on a bridge. And building a bridge means that all of a sudden, some previously unaccessible area is now accessible. There's not a lot of politicians who want their name on a sewer system. And the truth of the matter is, if the sewer system works right, nobody notices. Nobody ever says, I flushed the toilet today and it worked perfectly. You just take it for granted.

GROSS: Do you have any stories about cities that actually improved their water or sewer infrastructure and turned it around?

Mr. DUHIGG: Well, what Philadelphia is doing is really interesting. So Philadelphia has set aside over $1.6 billion to try and remake basically how the city absorbs rainwater. Philadelphia was having a big problem with these sewer overflows that we were talking about. And so they've taken this huge pot of money and they're going to plant thousands to trees with it, and they're going to start investing in what's known as green development. Because the real issue with rainwater is, as cities have become more paved over, the rainwater doesn't get absorbed by the land and that's why it runs into the sewer system. The answer is to stop paving things quite as much.

For instance, take parking garages. In New York City now, we have a regulation that if you build a new parking garage, you have to build on top of it essentially a lawn or a green space with the idea being that all that land will absorb the rainwater and it won't run off.

Philadelphia has taken this to a whole ´┐Żnother level where they've basically said they're going to come in and they're going to build tons and tons of green spaces on top of parking lots and other areas to absorb the rainwater so it doesn't get into the sewer system.

And the interesting thing about this is, you know, usually people appreciate everyone planting trees. But a lot of the green development, if you build a lawn on top of a parking garage, no one ever sees it. So it's not the type of thing where people are applauding you for building that lawn because they're not even aware that it's there. But Philadelphia has taken a real commitment to trying to make sure that what they are building will absorb rainwater so it doesn't get into the sewer system and it doesn't overflow quite as much.

GROSS: Charles Duhigg will be back in the second half of the show. His front page article in today's New York Times is headlined "That Tap Water is Legal but Maybe Unhealthy." It's part of his series, "Toxic Waters." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. He's writing a front page series called "Toxic Waters." Today's article is about how tap water that is legal may still cause health hazards because the law regulating tap water is so out of date. This series is based in part on hundreds of thousands of water pollution records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

When we left off, we were talking about a recent article in his series about why many American sewer systems are out of date and overwhelmed, resulting in sewage backing up into basements and poisoning waterways.

GROSS: I was hoping that you'd have a chance to go into one of the sewers as part of your research and then you could tell me all about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But apparently they wouldn't let you in.

Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah.

GROSS: So what's the story?

Mr. DUHIGG: I was hoping that too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUHIGG: We spent a lot of time trying to get inside a sewer. In fact, at one point I said, you know, this might be the type of thing we need to sue you over because this is a huge part of New York City's infrastructure. I don't understand why you won't let me into a sewer system with my photographer. And what they said, and this makes - I think hopefully folks will agree that this makes sense and I didn't back down unnecessarily from suing to get into a sewer, is they said, look, a sewer system's really, really dangerous.

And it turns out that, you know, there's all this water that's moving really, really quickly and a lot of it is producing gases, and the water contains really, really bad stuff. So eventually what they said is, we can send a photographer into the sewer system but only if we put him through like a four-day training course about what to do if you're in an enclosed place, and like you pass out or there's a collapse. And we would have to - we'd have to pay for an emergency standby team on the surface that would be able to go in and retrieve him if he became overcame by gases and passed out.

At that point we were looking like $15,000 worth of cost just to get a guy to take a picture of what would essentially look like a big pipe. So we decided not to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUHIGG: They did also tell me, though, this is really interesting because I figure, you know, it's New York, it's filled with people who will do almost anything at any moment of the day. I figured that people would be pulling up those manhole covers and going down in the sewer system all the time. And so I asked them, you know, how frequently does this happen?

And they said that - I think it's within the last five years they've had one incident where two high schoolers got a manhole cover up, climbed down and that they detected their presence within like five minutes and minutes later had someone out there pulling them up out of the hole.

So I asked them how they knew so well that these guys were climbing in and they wouldn't tell me, because they said they have a lot of protections that are designed basically to protect New York from terrorist incidents that might occur through the sewers.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. DUHIGG: But for security reasons they won't describe them to me.

GROSS: Right. There's so much urban folklore about sewers and probably the most famous is that there's alligators in the New York City sewers.

Mr. DUHIGG: Right.

GROSS: I don't think you learned anything about alligators, but you did report in your article that there have been times when the system has been kind of overwhelmed by pickles or chicken heads?

Mr. DUHIGG: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Can you explain?

Mr. DUHIGG: Well, it turns out that whatever you dump into grates, it's going to go through the sewer system. So I guess at one point there was a local pickle company in New York that had a huge amount of stock that went bad, and so they just dumped it all into the street to go through the grate. So the plant becomes inundated with all these pickles coming through. Like thousands and thousands of pickles for hours at a time.

Same thing with chicken heads. Apparently someone was collecting chicken heads and they decided to get rid of their collection. But the interesting thing about New York sewage system, and this is true of a lot of places, is that it's gravity driven, so we have almost no pumps whatsoever in New York. Everything is designed so that it just goes slightly downhill enough that it all moves naturally.

In fact, a lot of water can move from the Village, which is in the south of Manhattan all the way up to like 136th Street just by gravity, so it's moving north. And because the system is designed like that, anything that gets into it will move. So there are these huge, huge pieces of lumber that will come through the sewage plant sometimes that they have to fish out because they have screens that sort of are designed to block this stuff.

But the force of the water is enough that it can move essentially anything, and they have these, this constantly moving screen system where they're sort of like picking up stuff and pulling it up. A lot of it is like rags and, you know, pieces of paper.

Everyone's always walking by because they look for money in there, like all the workers in the plants. A lot of times they'll see turtles because kids flush their turtles down the toilet. And there's one guy at the plant who's like the turtle guy and he takes them and he nurses them back to health and then gives them to pet stores. Basically, if you can flush it or you can dump it, it's gone through one of those plants and someone's seen it at some point.

GROSS: So when you're at home now and you turn on the tap and drink some water or you flush the toilet, do you see a different world than you used to see?

Mr. DUHIGG: A little bit. Yeah. And it's important for people to realize that when we talk about pollutants in the water, most of the things that we're talking about are dangerous over long exposures. So I get a lot of emails and calls from readers who say, you know, I'm really worried about drinking any tap water now. And you don't - my answer is that you don't have to be worried about a glass of water.

And in fact, you don't even have to be worried about a month's glass of water. But all of us drink water over our entire lifetime and it's exposure to these chemicals and these pollutants over a lifetime that's really, really dangerous. And the dangers are things like cancers, things that are slow developing and slow growing.

GROSS: So you say, like, don't worry about having a drink of water or a month. But we're not in it for a drink or a month. I mean, you know, we drink tap water all of our lives, so I mean there's no way of avoiding that, so there's, you know...

Mr. DUHIGG: What to do?

GROSS: What are you going to do? Yeah.

Mr. DUHIGG: You're exactly right. And that's the issue. That's why we're writing about this, is because there are very few things in our lives that we get exposed to every single day on a regular basis. And in fact if you talk to the EPA, what they say is there's basically only two, maybe three things: the air that you breathe and the water that you drink.

Even food - food comes from so many different places and it can be shipped all over the world, so there's no consistency in the food you eat. But the water you drink and the air you breathe, that's coming from a consistent source for most of your life if you live in one place.

And so the issue is, what's the right thing to do right now? The number on right thing to do is to buy a filter for your own home water. This is what experts tell me. Even if you live in a place with great water, there are these things called chlorination byproducts in it and that's just part of cleaning the water. You add chlorine, which is good. It kills all the microbes, but there are byproducts of that and a certain number of people are going to get cancer from those byproducts.

The EPA has said this is a risk that as a nation we're willing to take. We kill the microbes, but there's byproducts. Some people will get cancer. Such is life. If you get a filter, you can get rid of most of those byproducts. So everyone should be filtering their water.

But then the other question is, because the filter doesn't remove everything and because it's a hassle and because we shouldn't have to filter our water, what should you do? And the answer is you should learn a lot about your own water. There's 54,000 water systems in the United States. So essentially you're drinking a different glass of water for every single water system, and you should learn about you water system.

If you go - if you call up your water system or you go online, you can get what's called the consumer confidence report, which is a report that every water system has to put out every year that lists what's in the water. And because water is such a local issue, because these systems are in some cases so small, sometimes all it takes is one or two residents saying, look, we care about X and we want you to care about it more to see real change within the water system.

So if people are worried about their water, they should be learning what's in their water and they should be contacting their local politicians and saying, look, I want you to know that if you decide to spend money - tax money on improving the water treatment, I support that. I'm not going to vote against you for doing it. And in places where that's happened, you've just seen huge, huge improvements in the water quality.

GROSS: Well, Charles Duhigg, thank you again for all the good news.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I really appreciate your reporting and your sharing it with us. Thank you very, very much.

Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times. His front page article today about tap water and his recent article about outdated sewer systems are part of his series "Toxic Waters."

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