A public-minded researcher discovers serious contamination of drinking water. His efforts to alert local officials are rebuffed. Concerned over how this will affect their reputation and the town’s economy, the authorities sit on the evidence and deny any problems. All the while, trusting people continue to drink unsafe water.
While the setting may call to mind recent events in Flint, Michigan, this is actually the plot from Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1882 play, An Enemy of the People. The places and dates have changed, but the challenges of providing drinking water remain. Just how safe really is our water and how can we make it safer?
We marked the fortieth anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2014. In many respects, it was a date well worth celebrating. Most Americans take tap water for granted. We enjoy some of the safest and most reliable drinking water in the world. More than 90 percent of customers receive water that meets all standards all the time. This is a far cry from a century ago, when waterborne illnesses and deaths were commonplace. The famed aviator brother, Wilbur Wright, died of typhoid in 1914. The 1916 polio epidemic required quarantines in New York City, where 9,000 cases were reported. Today, these and other waterborne diseases have virtually disappeared in America. Glass half full.
Yet the glass remains half empty. Just ask the residents in Charlestown, West Virginia, where two years ago a chemical spill shut down water supplies, or in Toledo, Ohio, where seven months later an algal bloom closed their water system. The threats in those cases were due to causes beyond the reach of the Safe Drinking Water Act – a breach in a chemical storage tank atop a river bank in Charlestown, and excessive nutrients from agriculture flowing into Lake Erie in Toledo. These incidents made clear that action to ensure safe drinking water needs to start well upstream of the water treatment plant.