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How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
Do you ever wonder whatâs 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 arenât doing much
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. Weâre
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 three percent of polluters have been fined or
Duhiggâs 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
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 theyâre
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 youâve punished anyone.
And since theyâre 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 three 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 youâre
not going to get punished for it.
GROSS: And weâll 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 â now, I will say, we started â we
spent about 10 months building this database, and I went to the EPA regularly,
and I said this is what weâre 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 doesnât 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, letâs 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
There were complaints about yellow smoke from chimneys of coal-fired power
plants. Five states sued the plantâs owner, Alleghany Energy, claiming that air
pollution was causing respiratory diseases. So the company found an alternative
to clean the plantâs 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, itâs 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 itâs important because coal-fired power
plants are actually the largest source of toxic waste in the entire nation.
Thereâs nothing bigger, that produces more toxins, than coal-fired power
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
theyâre 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, Iâm 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 donât put them in these big ponds or landfills, what they do is they
have to dump them into rivers. And so, in a sense, youâre taking the pollution
out of the air, but youâre 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 donât burn away. They basically
fall out as you burn it, and thatâs whatâs getting dumped into rivers.
GROSS: So is this happening around the country or mostly in certain regions?
Mr. DUHIGG: Itâs happening around the country. It â 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 isnât necessarily dumped locally,
a lot of times itâs shipped from place to place.
And the thing about water thatâs important to remember, is that water flows.
Thatâs one of the great things about it. Thatâs why we can â thatâs why rivers
So if youâre dumping something, say, up in Michigan, or youâre 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
youâre 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 doesnât
stay where you put it. It can move all over the nation.
GROSS: And another scary thing is that it doesnât have a color or a shape. It
doesnât even necessarily have a smell or a taste. So if youâre drinking
chemically polluted water, you donât know it.
Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely, and thatâs 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
But now letâs fast-forward 30 years, and weâve 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,
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, weâre talking about chemicals
that have no scent, have no taste, that you canât even detect are there and
that are dangerous when theyâre measured in parts per billion.
So you can have essentially what is the equivalent of, say, a thimble full of
chemical in a swimming poolâs 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 itâs so small, and itâs so potent that you just donât
realize itâs 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 donât realize it because you donât 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 thatâs hard about this, is itâs hard to know
exactly what the symptoms are. So there are some types of water pollution, for
instance bacteria that you drink, and youâll have a stomach ache the next day
or later that day, and you know that thatâs from the water. But the most scary
types of water pollution and health effects are things that take sometimes
years to develop.
So letâs 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.
Itâs 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, theyâll 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 wouldnât do anything to us in our water supply. But
thereâs now studies emerging that say if youâre a pregnant woman, and if youâre
at a certain type, a certain time of development of your fetus, exposing that
fetus to Atrazine can be disastrous.
Thereâs 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 donât know exactly when, that Atrazine is probably only really
dangerous if you drink it during a certain time.
So to answer your question, itâs hard to say exactly what the symptoms are or
what the diseases look like, and itâs 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 letâs get back to the scrubbing process thatâs used at a lot of
energy plants that are powered by coal. And again, for listeners just joining
us, this is a process thatâs preventing the pollutants from going out in the
air, but in order to prevent the pollutants from going out into the air,
thereâs a way that theyâre washed out, and that water - with the pollutants in
it - is ending up in rivers, and in groundwater and in many peopleâs tap water
as a result.
So how effective is the Environmental Protection Agency in monitoring whatâs
going on with the contaminants from the scrubbing process?
Mr. DUHIGG: Not very effective so far, and thereâs 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 isnât being enforced, if it isnât being used, thenâ¦
GROSS: Why isnât it being enforced? Letâs just stop there for a second.
Mr. DUHIGG: Itâs â thereâs a couple of reasons why, Iâm told by the regulators
themselves; the first of which is that this just hasnât 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 Iâm 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 didnât
start with Bush, it actually started under Clinton. There was â 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
hasnât been a priority, and that means it hasnât been a priority for the EPA.
But at the state level, the reason why the Clean Water Act isnât being
enforced, and states have primary responsibility, usually, for enforcing the
Clean Water Act. The reason why is because, simply put, they just donât have
You know, the average Department of Environmental Protectionâs 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 donât 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 and the power industry is
one of the largest donors to political campaigns, and theyâve worked very, very
hard to make sure that there arenât 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 doesnât have rules specifically for
power plants, and a lot of people say this is an oversight.
Lisa Jackson, whoâs the new head of the EPA, has said that sheâs 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 havenât
created special rules that say even though youâre burning coal 24 hours a day,
and youâre dumping a whole bunch of stuff into the river, you have to live by
certain rules. They havenât passed those rules, and lobbyists have worked very,
very hard to make sure that there havenât been new rules.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. Heâs a reporter
for the New York Times, and heâs been writing a series called âToxic Waters.â
The series examines the worsening pollution in American waters and the response
of regulators. Itâs kind of an amazing series. They have an incredible database
that they compiled with the help of the Freedom of Information Act.
Charles, letâs take a short break here, and then weâll talk some more about
your series, âToxic Waters.â
Mr. DUHIGG: Sure.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Charles Duhigg. Heâs a reporter
for the New York Times, and heâs been writing an incredibly interesting series
called âToxic Waters,â 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Letâs just look at another source of pollution that youâve written
about, and thatâs 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. Thatâs a lot of
Mr. DUHIGG: Thatâs a lot of manure.
GROSS: Yeah. So what happens to this massive amount of manure after itâs
Mr. DUHIGG: Well, it is â I went up to this farm - one of the farms in this
county - and itâs absolutely fascinating because, you know, dairy is â itâs a
dairy farm â 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 - thatâs working all the time.
So you walk into this barn thatâs filled with a couple hundred cows, and itâs
almost spotless. You know, the manure is removed immediately. All the cows are
happy because happy cows milk better, etcetera. When the manure is taken away,
theyâve got to do something with it. So they put it into this huge pond, and
then they spray it onto fields.
Now in part, thatâs 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,
itâs 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 theyâve 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 couldnât 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, monthsâ worth of manure started filtering through the soil into the water
system. And literally, within 12 hours, peopleâs wells went bad, and they were
drinking water that contained E. coli and bacteria.
One woman, for instance, had a six-month-old child, and she only breastfed it.
So the child didnât 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.
Thereâs a lot of â when you â 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
GROSS: The EPA has created special rules for large farms, farms with 700 cows
or more, but you say that these rules arenât 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 theyâre likely to pollute. And if they self-determine that
theyâre not likely to pollute, then theyâre not regulated. So as a result,
thereâs thousands and thousands of farms that should be regulated and should be
policed, but that arenât.
The other reason why the rule isnât 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 itâs worth looking at those. But across the nation,
if you look at all the farming land, the biggest farms are a small percentage
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 itâs still 800 cows. Itâs 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, âToxic Waters.â Iâm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm 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 theyâve built these
large ponds and they put the stuff called slurry or slug 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 donât we just
pump all the slug back into the empty mine hole? And so that's what companies
have done, particularly in West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming â 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: Itâs 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 six or seven years old
- because minerals in the water had completely destroyed the enamel on his
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
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: Itâs - 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 itâs going to pollute
that drinking water source. But as we discussed before, a law is only as good
if 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.
Hereâs 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 didnât 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 didnât 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 - itâs difficult to make an argument that coal can be
clean in the way that most people use that phrase. That being said, itâs also
really important to recognize that coal is absolutely necessary to America
right now. We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and itâs 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,
etcetera. 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, weâve decided
that we want to emit less carbon, but the cost of that might be more water
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 itâs 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 what to be 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, weâve 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
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, itâs 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 is 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 youâre 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
What about my tap water?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I mean, how doâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: How do I know if I'm drinking chemicals from the scrubbing process from
coal-powered energy plants or if I'm drinking weed killer? How can I find that
Mr. DUHIGG: Itâs 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' 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 donât 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 doesnât 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 shouldnât be in your drinking
But the second way that the Safe Drinking Water Act has fallen apart is that
many, many water systems, including - I know because weâve 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 doesnât 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 itâs 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 donât have the information they need to make
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
GROSS: Am I deluding myself with my water filter that really does make the
water in my kitchen taste betterâ¦
Mr. DUHIGG: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: â¦tasting better? Or am I getting out any of the chemicals that want to
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DUHIGG: I donât 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 whatâs important to remember about this, is it - these arenât 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 thatâs 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 2000 Americans a year get bladder cancer, because of
chlorine byproducts that are in their water. This is the statistic from the
If you use a lot of the water filters like the one that youâre talking about at
home, itâll take out the chlorination byproducts. So, itâs 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 theyâre
kind of in this catch 22. If they donât add the chlorine, then bacteria is in
the water. If they add the chlorine - then thereâs chlorination byproducts. To
remove the chlorination byproducts theyâve 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 water, we all say look,
water should be a basic right. Yeah, I canât believe youâre charging us more
for this. And people get very upset. So, the problem is that thereâs 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 regularlyâ¦
GROSS: All right.
Mr. DUHIGG: â¦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 Iâve read some of the research thatâs out
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 thereâs no standards. Right? Thereâs no law that says a
bottled water has to be x or y. So, some bottled water is literally tap water
that 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 itâs because this is complicated stuff they usually donât 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 isnât.
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 forâ¦
Mr. DUHIGG: Absolutely.
Mr. DUHIGG: Thereâs a lot of resources out there. So, if you just Google home
water testing, youâll be able to find lots of ways to test your own water in
your home. Thereâs 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, theyâll usually recommend some laboratories to you.
Particularly if you drink water from a well, you have to test your water once a
Mr. DUHIGG: Municipal water systems are a little bit safer. Wells get polluted
very quickly and very dangerously. So, if youâre drinking well water
definitely, get your water tested once a year. The other thing I would mention
is that you can â thereâs a lot resources at your water system, about your
water - if youâre on municipal water. So if you call up your water system - and
usually they have the 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, 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 itâs 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. Itâs not the type of thing that Washington has to act on. If 30 people
call their water system and say Iâm concerned about x, that will be like 28
more calls and they usually get in a year.
GROSS: Well, Charles Duhigg really been great to talk with you. Thank you so
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 âToxic Waters.â 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 âToxic Waterâ 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.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Miranda Lambert's Classic Country 'Revolution'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review of country singer Miranda Lambertâs
third album âRevolution.â The Texas born 25 year old has had a string of hits
and music industry awards since the release of her 2005 debut album âKerosene.â
For all this mainstream acceptance, however, rock critic Ken Tucker says one of
Lambert's best qualities is her persistence in writing complex songs and
choosing to cover compositions by lesser known but worthy artists.
(Soundbite of song, âOnly Prettier)
Ms. MIRANDA LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) Well I've been saved by the grace of
southern charm, I got a mouth like a sailor and yours is more like a hallmark
card, if you wanna pick a fight, well I'm gonna have to say good night, I don't
have to be hateful, I can just say bless your heart, and even though I don't
belong with your high life friends.
KEN TUCKER: Miranda Lambert has been known to get away with some nicely
outrageous boasting in the past â lighting up a wayward lover with kerosene,
invoking her prowess with a gun as a warning against infidelity on her 2007
single âGunpowder & Lead,â and letting you draw your own conclusions about her
previous album title, âCrazy Ex-Girlfriend.â Her new album is called
âRevolution,â but who cares if it doesnât represent one?
Iâm more pleased that in a new song sheâs written called âDead Flowers,â
Lambert takes a wilted image and spruces it up as a symbol of not merely a
dying relationship. As she does on her best songs, she sketches the details a
bit more vividly than that. To her narrator, the flowers remind her of the day
her man brought them home to her, thinking this was enough to make her happy.
Instead, they now just remind her of how clueless he is about her moods and her
(Soundbite of song, âDead Flowerâ)
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) I feel like the flowers in this vase. He just brought
them home one day. Ainât they beautiful, he said. They been here in the kitchen
and the waters turning gray. Theyâre sitting in the vase but now theyâre dead.
TUCKER: Itâs probably safe to say Lambert didnât write âDead Flowersâ with
country star Blake Shelton in mind. The two have been an item for a while now,
and collaborated on a few songs here, most notably on âLove Song,â whose lyric
is the exact opposite of âDead Flowers.â Itâs all about how the narrator and
her love read each other with emotional telepathy â itâs an idealized romance
saved from treacle by a fine, firm folk melody and a surging vocal by Lambert.
(Soundbite of song, âDead Flowerâ)
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) I was standing there crying in the kitchen. Itâs been
one of those mornings thatâs gonna last all day. And he comes in, wraps his
arms around me. And I donât even have to say a thing. Thatâs what makes it
love. Thatâs what makes it a love song. He comes in...
TUCKER: Lambert and Shelton, in their late 20s and early 30s, respectively, may
be utterly contemporary country stars. Lambert came to prominence on âNashville
Star,â for heavenâs sake, the country TV equivalent of âAmerican Idol.â But she
displays more knowledge of the history of her genre than the average Idol
contestant does of pop or R&B. On âMe and Your Cigarettes,â for example, she
uses the classic country device of equating herself with a jarring, jocular
image â cigarettes, nicotine addiction â and extends the metaphor over four
fine verses and a catchy chorus.
(Soundbite of song, âMe and Your Cigarettesâ)
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) Gives you something you can do with your hands. Makes
you look cool and feel like a man. In the morning youâll probably regret me. Me
and your cigarettes. Started young, itâs too late to quit. Most call it a bad,
bad habit. Your mama told you, you could end up dead with me. Me and your
TUCKER: With her dusty drawl and slurry phrasing, Lambert is also terrific at
choosing cover songs. She and her producers take a 1978 song by John Prine â a
great singer-songwriter who can use the royalties that accrue from being
included on a Miranda Lambert album â and turn his bit of excellent whimsy,
âThatâs the Way That The World Goes Round,â into a country-rock rave-up.
(Soundbite of song, âThatâs the Way That The World Goes Roundâ)
Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) Well I was sitting in the tub just a counting my toes,
when the radiator broke and the water froze, got stuck in the ice without any
clothes, naked as the eyes of a clown. I was crying ice cubes hoping that Iâd
croak. When the sun came through the window and the ice all broke. I said, son
of a gun man thatâs just a joke. And thatâs the way that the world goes around.
Thatâs the way that the world goes around. One minute youâre up and the next
youâre down. Itâs a half an inch of water and you think youâre gonna drown.
Thatâs the way that the world goes around.
TUCKER: If some of the slower, showier songs on âRevolutionâ suggest a hint of
self-absorption, the majority of the good ones suggest something much better, a
country star who likes to tweak Nashvilleâs notions of mannerliness. And I
donât even have time to talk about the nerviness of the song about drinking
wine with Jesus as though the Son of God was just an extra-fine good ole boy.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Miranda Lambertâs album âRevolution.â You can download Podcasts of our show on
our Web site freshair.npr.org. Iâm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.