Environmental Scientist. Writer. Mother.

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When Water Hurts

I am a public utility girl, born and raised on municipal water — and I, like millions of Americans, took solace in the systems that were established to ensure the safety of my drinking water. I took solace in knowing that there’s a department staffed with men and women whose job is to filter and treat the water intended for my home, and I worried less — certainly less than if my water came from a private well — about the elements that can threaten drinking water quality, things like bacteria and other microorganisms, naturally occurring toxic compounds, chemicals from agricultural and industrial waste. I know from professional experience that ground and surface water resources are vulnerable to all manner of pollution sources, so I took comfort in seeing the nice little report with my monthly bill, showing the utility’s compliance with the Federal drinking water rules.

I guess that’s what makes the recent drinking water catastrophes in Flint, Michigan, and Hoosick Falls, New York so upsetting — because technically, both of those systems appeared to be in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Technically, water sampled from the City of Flint’s water treatment plant met drinking water standards for lead, even though that same water was corrosive enough to erode lead-bearing private and municipal infrastructure and produce (in some homes) tap water samples high enough in lead to be qualified as hazardous waste. Technically, the Village of Hoosick Falls Water Department appeared to have a flawless performance record, producing water of such quality that the Hoosick Falls Water Treatment Plant was once honored by the New York Rural Water Association as Rural Water Treatment Plant of the Year. In fact, Hoosick Falls’ water was named the best-tasting water in Rensselaer County in 2013, and did well enough in regional competitions to make it to the finals at the New York State Fair. And yet, until recently, water distributed from that perfectly compliant, award-winning plant contained alarming concentrations of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), exposing thousands of unsuspecting residents to a chemical whose toxic health effects are just beginning to be understood.

I’m neither a resident of Flint nor Hoosick Falls, but I can imagine that the betrayal cuts deep, the violation of trust like a swift punch to the gut. It’s as if you asked a trusted friend to babysit your children, but when you got home, you found a stranger with a history of violent criminal behavior watching them instead. How did this even happen? How long has this been going on? What does this mean for the future of my family’s health and well-being?

When water hurts, your understanding of the world gets turned upside-down. The very essence of your cells and those of your children have been violated, their walls trespassed against by chemicals that may or may not hold your bodies hostage, that may or may not, at some time in the coming years ahead, commit some type of unspeakable harm. The anxiety is both tangible and intangible, acute and everlasting. When water hurts, the harm is real — even if the physiologic manifestation of that harm is not diagnosed for many years.

As a former environmental regulator, I have had the unfortunate experience of informing someone that their water has become contaminated — that their private well intersected a petroleum or solvent plume and their water was no longer safe to drink. There is little to say to dull the blow, little that can be offered to calm the fears of what might happen later on. So we focused on the solution. Our course of action always included bottled water as a temporary fix, in-situ treatment systems and monitoring plans as an acceptable long-term solution, but the holy grail for solving a potable water problem in our line of work was to connect them to  public water. Public water was the life boat, the safety net, the thing that delivered you unscathed to the other side.  It was the solution to the problem, not the problem itself.

But it seems this is no longer the case. Or rather, perhaps it never was. The unsettling discovery from the past few months is that the systems designed to safeguard and monitor our public drinking water systems are un-protective, incomplete.  We are vulnerable to a national crisis of antiquated water infrastructure, and we are limited by the narrow scope of authority that our regulatory agencies have.

To that point: the most contaminated public well in the Village of Hoosick Falls is reportedly located a mere 500 yards from the Saint-Gobain facility — a facility that has handled PFOA in the manufacturing of Teflon products since at least the 1960s. Though a clear hazard to a public source of drinking water, plant operators were never required to report releases of PFOA to the EPA, because the chemical wasn’t regulated, and the Village was never required to look for it because it wasn’t on the list. Why? Under existing chemical policy, compounds are considered safe until proven otherwise, and the EPA is granted neither the time nor the resources to adequately study the toxicity of the 85,000 industrial chemicals currently in use. PFOA is just one of those compounds.

The municipal water systems of Flint and Hoosick Falls are not the first public drinking water systems to become contaminated in this country, nor will they be the last. But one would expect our public health and environmental agencies to at least be equipped with the authority to handle the emergencies that arise. As long as chemicals for which human health and environmental impacts are not yet known can be incorporated into consumer products and released into soil, air, and water — as long as these compounds can loiter in our drinking water resources, unmonitored and unaddressed, our current rules are not enough.


About Mary Heather

I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.


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