Author Seth Siegel: US Drinking Water Issues Daunting But Solvable

Dec 13, 2019

New York author Seth Siegel has spoken on water issues around the world. In 2016, he became UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences first senior water policy fellow.

That appointment allowed Siegel to dive into research for his latest book, Troubled Water: What’s Wrong With What We Drink. It explores a multitude of drinking-water problems that plague communities around the United States — from contaminated wells to crumbling infrastructure.

Siegel begins by taking the reader to a small town in upstate New York called Hoosick Falls. "It’s sort of a Norman Rockwell village ... It’s a town of several thousand people and everybody knows everybody," he says.

Hoosick Falls' major source of employment was a series of factories that produced the ingredients for Teflon.

John Hickey worked in one of those factories for decades. When he died of kidney cancer in 2013, his son Michael could not make sense of it. "It didn’t make sense genetically; it didn’t make sense from a family tree point of view," Siegel says.

When he learned other residents were getting sick with cancer and other illnesses, Michael Hickey started digging for answers. He took samples of tap water around town, including his father’s home and his own. The tests revealed high levels of PFOA (or Perfluorooctanoic acid), one in a family of man-made chemicals used to create Teflon coating and many other products.

READ: Marinette Residents Want Want to Get PFAS Chemicals Under Control

"The point I’m trying to make is that if this person with no scientific skills could figure out why there’s this epidemic of people getting sick and dying in his town, why wouldn’t be the case almost anywhere," Siegel says.

Author Seth Siegel speaking at UW-Milwaukee earlier this month. WUWM's Susan Bence moderated the program.
Credit ELORA HENNESSEY

While Americans count on the EPA to make certain their drinking water is safe, Siegel says the agency is not keeping up with the myriad of contaminants that are making their way into surface water and groundwater.

Siegel says 100,000 to 120,000 chemicals exist in the United States, from industrial solvents to pharmaceutical products. "I was curious to find out how many the EPA is on top of, looking out for us."

Siegel says he was shocked to learn that "the EPA had only regulated 70 chemicals and a total of 91 contaminants." He continues, "To be regulated means that your water utility has to check for that contaminant and if it’s above what it deems a health level, to bring it down to that level."

Siegel says  his concern grew when he learned that last time the EPA added a contaminant to its regulation list was more than 23 years ago.

"Everybody drinks water and once people understand the degree of contaminants that they're getting in their water, they're going to be very unhappy that they and their children are having their health put at risk."

He believes scientific research must increase and drinking water regulations should be administered through a public health lens.

Siegel also maintains there are far too many water utilities scattered throughout the country. "I learned there are 51,535 [water utilities].  The consequence of that is that vast majority of these utilities don’t have the resources to hire the most highly-trained engineers to fill all of the open positions, to buy the up-to-date technology to purify the water, or to fix broken technology when it breaks."

Yet, Siegel is confident the U.S. drinking water crisis can be fixed. "I have no doubt that great American technological genius and that of other countries will be unleashed once we make the statement that we want to spend what we need to spend and to what we need to do to get all of this right."

He argues American water is improperly priced. "By slightly raising the price of water we can start attracting higher quality staff, give them retention so that they stick around, start buying the technologies that we need to fix the water and that we will also be able to repair the broken infrastructure."

Siegel hopes his book inspires readers to act. "The environmental movement is exactly my model, but this is a story that every American should know about and when they do know about it, they’re going to be calling for action."

Siegel isn't done writing about water. He's working on his next book, this time focusing on breakthroughs in water technology. Siegel predicts the book will change the way we think about, and interact with, water.

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