How Safe Is Your Drinking Water? An estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals, parasites, bacteria or viruses, or fails to meet federal health standards. Part of the problem, says journalist Charles Duhigg, is that water-pollution laws are not being enforced.
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How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?

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How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?

How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Do you ever wonder what's in your tap water? The New York Times is running a series of articles about chemicals and other toxins in American waters, how they end up in our drinking water, and why the regulators aren't doing much about it.

My guest, Charles Duhigg, is writing the series. He reports that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways. We're talking carcinogens in the tap water of major American cities, and unsafe chemicals in drinking water wells.

The Clean Water Act has been violated more than a half a million times in the last five years, but fewer than 3 percent of polluters have been fined or punished.

Duhigg's toxic water series investigates some of the sources of the pollution and why the polluters have gotten away with it. The series is based, in part, on hundreds of thousands of water pollution records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Charles Duhigg, welcome to FRESH AIR. To do this series, you got an incredible database, in part through the Freedom of Information Act. What did you petition for?

Mr. CHARLES DUHIGG (Writer): We went to every single state, and we filed anywhere from five to 10 FOIAs, or Freedom of Information Act requests, per state, and we basically asked them for everything. We said - under the Clean Water Act, anyone who dumps any type of pollutant into a waterway has to ask for a permit, and as part of that permit, they have to measure what they're actually dumping very regularly, sometimes as frequently as once a week.

And so we went to the states and we said, send us all that data. Give us everything that any company has ever sent you, and give us copies of their permits, and let us compare them to see if people are actually breaking the law. And then we also want all the data on whether you've punished anyone.

And since they're government agencies, they had to give it to us, and by crawling through that, we were able to find out that over 500,000 companies and other facilities have violated the Clean Water Act since 2004 and moreover, less than 3 percent of those have ever been fined or formally punished.

So as a result, today, you can essentially dump almost anything you want into a river or a lake or a drinking water source and be pretty confident that you're not going to get punished for it.

GROSS: And we'll get into the reasons why a little bit later, but do you think you have a better database right now than the EPA does?

Mr. DUHIGG: In some respects, yeah. The EPA - now, I will say, we started - we spent about 10 months building this database, and I went to the EPA regularly and I said, this is what we're doing. And the EPA, particularly under the new administration, has done a lot of work to improve their database since we started doing this project.

But what we have that the EPA doesn't have, is that we have all of the raw data from the states. One of the big issues with the Clean Water Act is that the law was designed to try and give power to the states, rather than centralizing it all with the EPA. And so as a result, the states have sort of front-line responsibility for enforcement, but they also have front-line responsibility for data collection and data storage.

The EPA has not done a great job, historically, of asking states for that data. So as a result, when we asked states for it, and we put it into a huge database, our database was more comprehensive than anything that the EPA or any of the states had ever put together.

GROSS: Well, let's look at some of the things that you found, because you found some incredible things. One of your articles is about cleansing the air at the expense of waterways. And this story is one of the great paradoxes of the environmental movement.

There were complaints about yellow smoke from chimneys of coal-fired power plants. Five states sued the plant's owner, Allegheny Energy, claiming that air pollution was causing respiratory diseases. So the company found an alternative to clean the plant's air emissions. What did they do as the alternative?

Mr. DUHIGG: What they did is they installed scrubbers, and within a handful of years, almost all coal-fired power plants in the United States will have these things called scrubbers. And what they are is, it's basically these jets of water that go through the chimneys and take out a lot of the pollutants before they go up into the sky.

These are really, really effective, and it's important because coal-fired power plants are actually the largest source of toxic waste in the entire nation. There's nothing bigger, that produces more toxins, than coal-fired power plants.

So by being able to scrub the air and take out all the toxins, you do great things for air pollution. But those toxins have to go somewhere and once they're trapped in this liquid - and many of them dissolve in the liquid - they have to do something with the liquid.

So what coal-fired power plants do is one of two things - the first of which is, they put them in these huge ponds or landfills. And in December, I'm sure you remember, one of these ponds - the dam burst in Tennessee, and it flooded over a billion gallons of these toxins on nearby areas.

If they don't put them in these big ponds or landfills, what they do is they have to dump them into rivers. And so in a sense, you're taking the pollution out of the air, but you're putting it in the water.

GROSS: And what are we talking about? What are some of the chemicals that are in this water?

Mr. DUHIGG: Lots of bad stuff - essentially, everything that your mother always told you not to put in your mouth: arsenic, lead, mercury, barium, boron. You know, when you think about it, basically the waste from a coal-fired power plant is what you get left with when you burn coal and coal is a very, very dense mineral. All of the heavy metals in there don't burn away. They basically fall out as you burn it, and that's what's getting dumped into rivers.

GROSS: So is this happening around the country or mostly in certain regions?

Mr. DUHIGG: It's happening around the country. It - most of the power plants are located along the East Coast and in sort of the Upper Midwest. California, for instance, has fewer coal-fired power plants than other areas. But the issue is a national issue, and even when the waste isn't necessarily dumped locally, a lot of times it's shipped from place to place.

And the thing about water that's important to remember is that water flows. That's one of the great things about it. That's why we can - that's why rivers transport things.

So if you're dumping something, say, up in Michigan, or you're dumping something into the Mississippi River in the northern part of the country, a lot of that contaminant can move down into the southern part of the country. Or if you're dumping something underground or it gets in the groundwater supplies, it can move through aquifers.

So one of the really scary things about water pollution is that it doesn't stay where you put it. It can move all over the nation.

GROSS: And another scary thing is that it doesn't have a color or a shape. It doesn't even necessarily have a smell or a taste. So if you're drinking chemically polluted water, you don't know it.

Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely, and that's one of the big changes between now and say, the 1970s, when the Clean Water Act was passed.

You know, one of the big impetuses for passing the Clean Water Act is that the Cuyahoga River in Cincinnati caught on fire, and this was shocking to the nation that a river could catch on fire. So Congress went into action. They passed the Clean Water Act. It was applauded as a breakthrough in environmental legislation.

But now let's fast-forward 30 years, and we've lived through one of the greatest chemical revolution in the history of the world. More chemicals have been invented in the last 30 years than in all the other years combined, essentially.

The difference with water pollution now, compared to the 1970s, is that in the 1970s, you could see it, and you could taste it, and you could feel it. And it took a lot of pollution to affect your life. Now, we're talking about chemicals that have no scent, have no taste, that you can't even detect are there, and that are dangerous when they're measured in parts per billion.

So you can have essentially what is the equivalent of say, a thimble full of chemical in a swimming pool's worth of water, and that can actually be enormously dangerous - can be linked to cancers, can be linked to birth defects and other problems. But it's so small, and it's so potent, that you just don't realize it's there. And so as a result, even though a number of contaminants and a number of types of water pollution are much more prevalent now, most people just don't realize it because you don't see it when you turn on the tap.

GROSS: So what are some of the symptoms people are suffering with, who are drinking water that is contaminated by wastewater from the scrubbers at the coal-powered power plants?

Mr. DUHIGG: One of the things that's hard about this is, it's hard to know exactly what the symptoms are. So there are some types of water pollution - for instance, bacteria that you drink, and you'll have a stomachache the next day or later that day, and you know that that's from the water. But the most scary types of water pollution and health effects are things that take sometimes years to develop.

So let's take arsenic, which is a common byproduct from scrubbers. If arsenic gets into your water supply, we know from studies that it can cause cancer. It can cause cancer of the stomach, of the throat, of the bladder. Basically anything that it comes into contact with can develop cancer, but sometimes it can take years to develop.

It's something that accumulates, that causes repeated mutations in the cells of your body that eventually becomes a cancer. So very frequently, someone can be exposed to a pollutant or to a chemical for quite a while and have no symptoms, no negative effects. But over time, they'll develop a cancer.

Another good example of this is a pesticide called Atrazine, which we did an article about. Atrazine is one of the most common pesticides in the United States. It is the most common pesticide in water sources. So, almost everyone in the United States drinks Atrazine at some point during the year.

Atrazine, for almost all of us, is completely safe. If you or I were to drink Atrazine, it probably wouldn't do anything to us in our water supply. But there's now studies emerging that say if you're a pregnant woman, and if you're at a certain type - a certain time of development of your fetus, exposing that fetus to Atrazine can be disastrous.

There's suggestions that Atrazine is linked to birth defects, to reproductive problems, to pre-term birth - which is a huge killer of infants - to children being born, you know, with terrible, terrible deformities. But it turns out that - and we don't know exactly when - that Atrazine is probably only really dangerous if you drink it during a certain time.

So to answer your question, it's hard to say exactly what the symptoms are or what the diseases look like, and it's hard to say even that the water is the only cause of that disease or is a provable cause. But it is clear that there are things in the water systems, particularly now, that we know from laboratory tests can cause cancers or birth defects or can kill us, and that people are drinking that water.

GROSS: Now let's get back to the scrubbing process that's used at a lot of energy plants that are powered by coal. And again, for listeners just joining us, this is a process that's preventing the pollutants from going out in the air. But in order to prevent the pollutants from going out into the air, there's a way that they're washed out, and that water - with the pollutants in it - is ending up in rivers and in groundwater and in many people's tap water as a result.

So how effective is the Environmental Protection Agency in monitoring what's going on with the contaminants from the scrubbing process?

Mr. DUHIGG: Not very effective so far, and there's two big reasons why. The first of which is, as we discussed a little bit before, the Clean Water Act is simply not being enforced. So one way that you could regulate these power plants is that you could use the Clean Water Act to really sort of bring the hammer down on them.

But if the Clean Water Act isn't being enforced, if it isn't being used, then…

GROSS: Why isn't it being enforced? Let's just stop there for a second.

Mr. DUHIGG: It's - there's a couple of reasons why, I'm told by the regulators themselves. The first of which is that this just hasn't been a priority on Capitol Hill for a number of years.

Obviously under the Bush administration, there was a very different attitude towards environmental regulation, and so I'm told by EPA staffers that under Bush, they were told to stop prosecuting polluters. They were told to take some of their biggest prosecutions and put them on a shelf - although it didn't start with Bush, it actually started under Clinton. There was - you know, President Clinton, in a lot of ways, was very pro-environment, but that had limits, particularly when it came up against certain industries. Arkansas, where obviously he was from, was very dependent on agriculture. Agriculture is a big polluter of water, and so basically on Capitol Hill, because people have stopped caring, voters have stopped caring about water pollution. It just hasn't been a priority, and that means it hasn't been a priority for the EPA.

But at the state level, the reason why the Clean Water Act isn't being enforced - and states have primary responsibility, usually, for enforcing the Clean Water Act - the reason why is because, simply put, they just don't have the resources.

You know, the average Department of Environmental Protection's budget has remained essentially flat over the last decade while the number of facilities that they have to police has doubled. So as a result, they just don't have the manpower to go out there and actually enforce the law.

GROSS: What about lobbyists? What are lobbyists up to?

Mr. DUHIGG: Lobbyists spend a lot of time on this, particularly when it comes to things like coal-fired power plants. The electric industry and the power industry is one of the largest donors to political campaigns, and they've worked very, very hard to make sure that there aren't new regulations on power plants.

You had asked how the EPA is doing on regulating power plants. The second part of the answer to that is the EPA actually doesn't have rules specifically for power plants, and a lot of people say this is an oversight.

Lisa Jackson, who's the new head of the EPA, has said that she's going to try to push through new rules. But until now, the EPA has treated power plants just like gas stations or your local grocery store or anyone else. They haven't created special rules that say even though you're burning coal 24 hours a day, and you're dumping a whole bunch of stuff into the river, you have to live by certain rules. They haven't passed those rules, and lobbyists have worked very, very hard to make sure that there haven't been new rules.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. He's a reporter for the New York Times, and he's been writing a series called "Toxic Waters." The series examines the worsening pollution in American waters and the response of regulators. It's kind of an amazing series. They have an incredible database that they compiled with the help of the Freedom of Information Act.

Charles, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your series, "Toxic Waters."

Mr. DUHIGG: Sure.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. He's a reporter for the New York Times, and he's been writing an incredibly interesting series called "Toxic Waters," and the series is examining the worsening pollution in American waters and the response of regulators. And they developed an incredible database through the help of the Freedom of Information Act to see who was polluting the waters, and whether they were being punished for that or not. And not is usually the operative word here.

GROSS: Let's just look at another source of pollution that you've written about, and that's the runoff from farms, from fertilizer on farms.

Mr. DUHIGG: Right.

GROSS: And just to give an example of this, you write about one county in Wisconsin with more than 41,000 dairy cows, and these cows, these 41,000 cows, produce more than 260 million gallons of manure each year. That's a lot of manure.

Mr. DUHIGG: That's a lot of manure.

GROSS: Yeah. So what happens to this massive amount of manure after it's produced?

Mr. DUHIGG: Well, it is - I went up to this farm - one of the farms in this county - and it's absolutely fascinating because, you know, dairies - it's a dairy farm - and dairies have to be big to survive now. And so one of the things that they do is, they give the cows this high-protein grain because it helps them produce milk, and cows are milked three times a day.

One of the consequences of giving a cow high-protein grain is that it produces liquid manure. So they have this conveyer belt that basically sweeps the manure away as soon as its produced - that's working all the time.

So you walk into this barn that's filled with a couple hundred cows, and it's almost spotless. You know, the manure is removed immediately. All the cows are happy because happy cows milk better, etc. When the manure is taken away, they've got to do something with it. So they put it into this huge pond, and then they spray it onto fields.

Now in part, that's a great thing because manure is a fertilizer, and they need to grow corn to feed the cows, and so the manure helps grow the corn. But they produce so much manure at this point that they just run out of land to spray it on, and so they just spray and spray and double-spray.

The average cow produces manure equivalent to 19 humans. And so as a result, it's just a lot of manure. And so, you know, as I was driving through Wisconsin, you just saw huge, huge trucks constantly spraying manure onto the ground because they've got to get rid of it.

GROSS: And does that get into our water?

Mr. DUHIGG: Yeah, yeah it does - particularly people who live near those fields. What happened up in Wisconsin is that they sprayed manure on frozen ground, and so it couldn't seep through the ground, and it just built up and built up - and then they had an early thaw. And as soon as the ground thawed out, months' worth of manure started filtering through the soil into the water system. And literally, within 12 hours, people's wells went bad, and they were drinking water that contained E. coli and bacteria.

One woman, for instance, had a 6-month-old child, and she only breastfed it. So the child didn't drink any water, but she was giving it a bath, and the baby sucked on a wash rag and got so sick that it had to be hospitalized.

There's a lot of - when you - the things that can persist in water tend to be things that are fairly hardy, and things that are hardy can do a lot of damage to humans.

GROSS: The EPA has created special rules for large farms, farms with 700 cows or more, but you say that these rules aren't really effective. Why not?

Mr. DUHIGG: One of the big problems is that under the last administration, there was a change in how the rules were applied, where farms are allowed to self-determine if they're likely to pollute. And if they self-determine that they're not likely to pollute, then they're not regulated. So as a result, there's thousands and thousands of farms that should be regulated and should be policed, but that aren't.

The other reason why the rule isn't great is because, as you mention, it applies to the biggest farms. And the biggest farms are some of the worst sources of pollution, so it's worth looking at those. But across the nation, if you look at all the farming land, the biggest farms are a small percentage of it.

So right now, we have regulations if someone - if one farm has say, you know, 800 cows, it gets regulated under the Clean Water Act. But if you have 10 farms, all right next to each other, with 80 cows apiece, none of them are regulated. But it's still 800 cows. It's still probably in the same area of land. And so the problem is that we tend to design our regulations to look for big facilities rather than big sources of pollution.

GROSS: Charles Duhigg will be back in the second half of the show to talk more about his New York Times series, "Toxic Waters." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about how chemicals get into our drinking water, and why many industrial polluters have been getting away with it.

My guest, Charles Duhigg, is writing the New York Times series "Toxic Waters." It's based in part on hundreds of thousands of water pollution records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. One of the paradoxes Duhigg found is that some of the pollutants that have been cleansed from the air have ended up in our water.

You also have written about coal companies dumping industrial waste into the ground. What are they doing here?

Mr. DUHIGG: This is a - and this is a problem, basically, in every state that mines coal. You have to use a lot of water when you mine coal, because you take the coal out of the ground and then you have to wash it. And you wash out a lot of heavy metals before you put it on the flatbeds and send it someplace else. And the water that is left over from that washing process - we're talking about millions and millions of gallons per day - has to go someplace.

So one of the things that mining companies have done is, they've built these large ponds, and they put the stuff - called slurry or sludge - into the ponds, but the ponds fill up pretty quickly. So someone came up with an idea that, you know, we just hollowed out this mine and we're done with it. Why don't we just pump all the sludge back into the empty mine hole? And so that's what companies have done, particularly in West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming - essentially, all over the nation.

The problem is, as you can probably imagine, is that once you pump - you fill up a mineshaft with a whole bunch of gooky(ph), dark fluid, it tends to begin seeping through cracks in the earth into water supplies. And so some residents in West Virginia that we wrote about contend that their wells have become completely polluted because of this process.

GROSS: And what are some of the symptoms people are getting in this area?

Mr. DUHIGG: It's pretty bad, actually, in this particular area. The family that we wrote about is a family, Jennifer Hall-Massey is the mother, and one of her children has, I think, 12 caps on his teeth - he's only 6 or 7 years old - because minerals in the water had completely destroyed the enamel on his teeth.

Another one of her - son, when he goes in the bath, gets these awful rashes all over his skin that scab up because whatever's in the water, the minerals in the water are so intense that they basically, you know, destroy the outer layer of his skin.

A lot of her neighbors have developed other diseases like, I think a third of the people in the community have had their gallbladders removed. There's been a number of cancers and brain tumors. And one of the things that's hard is that, for instance, you can't say that cancer is caused by a certain type of pollutant. In fact, cancer's the type of disease where you can't ever say that it's caused by any one thing.

So when these families go into court and they're suing the coal companies right now, they're at a disadvantage because they can't say, we got cancer because of what you put into the ground, because you can't say we got cancer because of anything. That was an issue that stymied the litigation against the tobacco industry for so long. And it's a very real scientific concern. We only want to say things that are scientifically accurate. But this is a very, very unhealthy community. And medical experts I've spoken to say that they think that the only thing that they can point to that would explain it is that everyone seems to drink the same polluted water.

GROSS: Hmm. So is what the coal companies are doing now, by dumping this industrial waste into the ground, is that legal or illegal?

Mr. DUHIGG: It's - the coal companies that we looked at, many of them are breaking the law. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, you can't pump chemicals into the ground near a drinking water source if you think it's going to pollute that drinking water source. But as we discussed before, a law is only as good as it gets enforced.

And so when it comes to West Virginia, even though these companies had been breaking the Safe Drinking Water Act for years and years, and they had been breaking some state laws - and in fact, they had been sending reports to state regulators every single month saying, by the way, we broke the law again. Here's the proof - because they're required to do that, by law. The regulators never punished them.

In fact, when I talked to the regulators, the regulators didn't even know that this was going on. They basically would get the reports each month and kind of put them in a filing cabinet and never look at them again.

So as a result, these companies were breaking the law. But since no one was ever calling them up and saying, by the way, you need to stop breaking the law or you need to pay a fine now, it really didn't matter. It would be as if, you know, we have laws against speeding, but if nobody ever got a speeding ticket, then there's not really a law.

GROSS: What impressions has this series left you with regarding the concept of, you know, clean coal or clean energy?

Mr. DUHIGG: It's pretty - it's difficult to make an argument that coal can be clean in the way that most people use that phrase. That being said, it's also really important to recognize that coal is absolutely necessary to America right now. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and it's great to be able to switch on the lights and have a BlackBerry and basically use electricity without having to think too hard about the cost. That's entirely because of coal. And if we stopped using coal tomorrow, the nation would suffer traumatically.

Now that being said, there's other forms of energy. There's natural gas, solar, etc. But one of the things - and there's ways to use coal that are cleaner. For instance, there's - the new coal plants that are being built are called super critical coal plants. They give off much less carbon dioxide emissions. But one of the interesting things about the debate going on right now - particularly in Washington, D.C. - around cleaner energy is that typically, when something emits less carbon, it uses much, much more water.

So a great example is the super critical coal plants. They give off much less carbon dioxide. They use 90 percent more water than the average coal plant. Or natural gas is another great example. Natural gas is essentially the cleanest form of electricity production. But the way to remove natural gas right now is this thing call hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where they go in and they shoot a whole bunch of chemicals and water into the ground to break up the shale that contains natural gas. And there's a lot of evidence that doing this is disastrous for nearby aquifers and drinking water sources.

People say now that their wells and their drinking water has been completely destroyed by the fracking process. So we're kind of facing this big question where as a nation, particularly under President Obama's plan, we've decided that we want to emit less carbon. But the cost of that might be more water pollution.

GROSS: You know, until your series, I just never thought about that.

Mr. DUHIGG: It's a - I mean, one of the ways to think about - to sort of frame this question is over the last 30 years, American industry and industry worldwide has gotten very good at using two of the cheapest resources. The first of that was carbon.

Agriculture, for instance, uses fertilizer, which is essentially carbon. We do all of our electricity production through carbon. We have this huge system of cars and roads that essentially are dependent upon carbon in the form of oil and gasoline. And corporations have gotten very, very good at optimizing carbon because it's cheap compared to other things.

The other thing that's been very, very cheap historically has been water. As a nation, we have decided we're not really going to charge people market rates for water because we never want to be in a position where a poor person says, I can't afford to get a glass of water. But as a result, companies have become very, very good at using huge amounts of water because it's so cheap.

Agriculture's another great example. I mean, basically, you know, we grow a lot of crops through subsidized water. Coal-fired power plants are always situated next to - typically next to rivers because they have to take in so much water to cool down the facility constantly. And as a country, under President Obama's energy plan, we've decided to try and break the dependence on carbon. But the other free resource is going to take up some of the slack, and that's been water.

GROSS: So do you think that we as a nation should be considering charging the corporate use of really, really large amounts of water, charging them for them for that water, but not charging citizens for drinking water?

Mr. DUHIGG: A number of advocates I talked to, environmentalists say absolutely. But they actually take it a step further because when you think about it, it's pretty difficult to come up with a system where we can rationally charge some people for water, but not others.

But when I do talk to people about this, what they say is, they say the number one thing we need to do is that we need to let the market assign a value to water, and then we need to charge that price. But the inevitable consequence of that is that some people who we wish had water cheaply won't be able to get it as easily, and we need to figure out how comfortable we are with that.

My guest is New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. We'll talk more about his series "Toxic Waters" after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. He's a staff writer for the business section of the New York Times, though a lot of his articles end up on the front page, like his series "Toxic Waters," which is examining the worsening pollution in American waters and the response of regulators.

What about my tap water?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, how do…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How do I know if I'm drinking chemicals from the scrubbing process from coal-powered energy plants, if I'm drinking weed killer? How can I find that out?

Mr. DUHIGG: It's really hard, and that's the key issue. And we're actually going to do one more story later this year that looks explicitly at that. So we have a law called the Safe Drinking Water Act. And what the Safe Drinking Water Act says is, it says that the water that we deliver to Terry Gross's home -and anyone else's home - has to meet a certain threshold of cleanliness. And if there is bad stuff in there, I have to tell you what's in there so that you can make an informed decision and decide not to drink it if you don't want to.

Much like the Clean Water Act has essentially kind of fallen apart in the last decade or so, the Safe Drinking Water Act, in many ways, has also stopped working in two ways, the first of which is, there's just a whole bunch of new chemicals that the Safe Drinking Water Act doesn't address at all. So there's literally thousands and thousands of chemicals that are invented every year, and there's a huge backlog of tens of thousands of chemicals that the EPA has never analyzed. So they can't say this should or shouldn't be in your drinking water supply.

But the second way that the Safe Drinking Water Act has fallen apart is that many, many water systems, including - I know because we've looked at it - your water system violate the Safe Drinking Water Act regularly. There's too much arsenic in the water. There's too much of these other contaminants and pollutants that are regulated, and the water system doesn't clean them out before delivering the water to you. And moreover, when they do warn you that there's bad stuff in the water, they do so in this way that it's just almost too easy for you to ignore.

I'm sure when you get your water bill, you'll see some fine print that says, we violated the Safe Drinking Water Act this way and to this measure. But it's totally incomprehensible. For the average American, you can't figure out whether that's something you should be worried about or not worried about. And as a result, people basically don't have the information they need to make informed choices.

And so one of the things that advocates tell me is that a huge change that should occur is that the EPA should just do a much better job and water systems should do a much better job of just informing people, giving them the facts so that they can say, look, this month I'm going to use bottled water instead of tap water.

GROSS: Am I deluding myself with my water filter that really does make the water in my kitchen taste better…

Mr. DUHIGG: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …tasting better? Or am I getting out any of the chemicals that want to kill me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUHIGG: I don't know how much of the taste is psychosomatic, but the water filter definitely does work. So one of the big issues - and you know, I mean part of what's important to remember about this is it - these aren't simple questions or simple problems. So let me give you an example of why the water filter is important, and how difficult the problems are. One of the biggest issues that's in all drinking water is something called chlorination byproducts. Now chlorination, as you know, is the process of cleaning water. So, adding chlorine to water is really a good thing.

But because water is so dirty now when it comes in the plants, the chlorination process creates all of these new byproducts or chemicals that are carcinogens. So, probably about 2,000 Americans a year get bladder cancer because of chlorine byproducts that are in their water. This is the statistic from the federal government.

If you use a lot of the water filters, like the one that you're talking about at home, it'll take out the chlorination byproducts. So, it's great to use water filters. Everyone should use water filters.

But the next question becomes, well, why should people have to use water filters in the first place? Why not just make the water system take out this chlorination byproducts? And the answer is that for the water system, they're kind of in this Catch 22. If they don't add the chlorine, then bacteria is in the water. If they add the chlorine, then there's chlorination byproducts. To remove the chlorination byproducts, they have to put in these huge, very expensive filters. And the only way that they can pay for these filters is by charging you more for you water.

But when they try and charge you - and any of us - more for our water, we all say look, water should be a basic right. Yeah, I can't believe you're charging us more for this. And people get very upset. So, the problem is that there's a lot of complicated questions around here. But to answer your question in a long-winded way, yeah, the water filter is great, you should continue using it. Just make sure that you change it regularly…

GROSS: Right.

Mr. DUHIGG: …because if it gets clogged up with bad stuff, it actually pollutes your water more.

GROSS: Have you looked at bottled water at all?

Mr. DUHIGG: Not really, although I've read some of the research that's out there.

GROSS: Do you think the bottled water is contaminated with chemicals?

Mr. DUHIGG: The answer is yes, sometimes. So, one of the hard things about bottled water is there's no standards. Right? There's no law that says a bottled water has to be x or y. So, some bottled water is literally tap water that's just been put in a bottle and sold to you. It has the same things in it the tap water does. Other bottled water has been filtered. Some of it has been filtered using very primitive filtering systems. Some of it has been filtered using reverse osmosis, which basically removes everything bad.

But it's because this is complicated stuff, they usually don't put that on the label, and so consumers need to kind of do a little bit of research. But there are Web sites out there that will basically tell you which bottled water is clean and which isn't.

GROSS: Are there ways to test your home waters, you know, like your tap water with a home testing kit or to just to send it out or ask for…

Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DUHIGG: There's a lot of resources out there. So, if you just Google home water testing, you'll be able to find lots of ways to test your own water in your home. There's a lot of laboratories that for relatively little money, you can take a water sample and you can send it to them. Every state, if you call the local water system, they'll usually recommend some laboratories to you. Particularly if you drink water from a well, you have to test your water once a year.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DUHIGG: Municipal water systems are a little bit safer. Wells get polluted very quickly and very dangerously. So if you're drinking well water, definitely get your water tested once a year. The other thing I would mention is that you can - there's a lot of resources at your water system about your water, if you're on municipal water. So if you call up your water system - and usually they have this stuff online - you can demand that they give you the CCR, which is the Consumer Confidence Report. And that will tell you all of the pollutants that have been detected over the past year.

GROSS: One last question, Charles. What kind of water do you drink?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUHIGG: I drink tap water. We have a - I have an 18-month- old son, and we use a water filter, just one of the pitcher water filters that, you know, that you can get inexpensively at almost any store. But all of the water that we drink goes through the filter, and I change the filter regularly. And we drink tap water. And it's important to remember that, you know, for all the issues that we have, most of the - 90 percent of the water in America is clean when you drink it. And there are ways to protect against the other 10 percent.

But we should be better as a nation. And the way that hopefully, we will become better is that more people will care about their water quality and will call up their local politicians and demand it, because water really is a local issue. It's not the type of thing that Washington has to act on. If 30 people call their water system and say, I'm concerned about x, that will be like 28 more calls than they usually get in a year.

GROSS: Well, Charles Duhigg, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

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

GROSS: And thanks for your incredible reporting.

Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Charles Duhigg is writing the New York Times series "Toxic Waters." His series spurred a House Committee hearing on enforcement of the Clean Water Act. At the hearing, which was held last Thursday on the 37th anniversary of the act, the new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, said that the agency would overhaul enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Duhigg is working on another article for the "Toxic Water" series. It will be about old urban sewer system that have proven inadequate and are leading to sewage overflows, polluting beaches and waterways and flooding basements and homes.

This is FRESH AIR.

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