Enemy of the People

This post began as a gentle experiment at home to compare drinking water. It wasn’t a test of impurities but more like a whiskey- or tea-tasting party at which connoisseurs pronounce which sample has the best flavor.

We took samples from the kitchen faucet, two brands of bottled water, water filtered in a jug (Brita), and from the refrigerator (MWF filter, General Electric). They were equilibrated in identical vessels and reached the same temperature in an hour. We took turns to be the tester (observer) and the tested, offering samples in random order to avoid bias from knowing the source.  After the first round our roles were reversed, and then we repeated the experiment for two more rounds. It wasn’t long before we reached the same conclusion.

Bottled water along with refrigerator water tasted best. Water filtered in a jug tasted as bad, or possibly worse, than straight out of the faucet. In my opinion, none of them was as tasty as water drawn from our well in the Allegheny Mountains, which is raw, unchlorinated, and only passed through a simple string filter. It gives excellent results with chemical tests, as it ought from rain falling at high elevations onto limestone far from West Virginia’s mines.

The experiment changed our drinking habits. Brita filters are out. Refrigerator filters are in. I discourage bottles because they aren’t environmentally friendly, but can’t give them up completely. It’s hard to explain the difference in taste between filters because there are no comparative data from the same lab. Both manufacturers claim their filters remove heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic) as well as some drugs and man-made pollutants. Both of them say they reduce chlorine (GE removes “97%”), but I’m suspicious that Brita water tastes the same as from the faucet, perhaps implying chlorine or chlorinated compounds cause the difference. I also wonder if filtration removes beneficial solutes like fluoride along with chlorine/ chlorides, which would not be good news for kids’ teeth in the absence of fluoride supplements.

The experiment provoked a fit of musing. Water is something we take for granted because it is almost ubiquitous, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, over 2% of which is fresh. We never expect kitchen faucets or showers will run dry.  And so I was stunned to hear at a public meeting a senior official from the Department of Environmental Quality lament the Potomac aquifer supplying water to James City County and neighboring countries will be exhausted by the middle of this century at current rates of depletion. Levels of fossil water have fallen by 200 feet and rain adds <<1 inch per year. How could I be ignorant of so important a fact, and why are local planners in a mad dash to grow this region’s population?

The prospect of coming water shortages is a paradox for a region of great rivers and wetlands where the annual rainfall approaches 40 inches. The audience was told we might switch to river water, recycle more water, and import water, but no option is rosy or cheap. Perhaps that’s why water is called the “new oil,” which I previously assumed meant only parched parts of the world. Water conservation is of course part of the solution, but whose supply will be drawn down first or inflated in price? Probably not those with the influence money buys. The papermill at West Point draws 20 million gallons per day from the aquifer, four times the volume used by the county and much of it for bleaching paper. Where it is drawn from source by industry and private well-owners it is free because billing applies only to water treatment and delivery.

The other half of the story is about the purity of what we drink. Why should citizens go to the trouble and expense of extra testing when we pay for what flows out of our faucets? Trust in the authorities to safeguard public health was misplaced in the past, and is being eroded again.

Up to Victorian times, cholera epidemics were blamed on bad air (“miasma”). Untreated human waste was dumped into the River Thames which flowed through London like a meandering sewer, and the air was so fetid in 1858 that it was called the “Great Stink.” Dr. John Snow died that year of a stroke an unsung hero at 45 years old. It wasn’t until 2013 that the medical journal that published his brief obituary issued an apology for ignoring this savior of public health, who is now called the first epidemiologist.

Four years earlier he deduced the source of a cholera epidemic was the community water pump on Broad Street in Soho and had its handle removed. His dot maps proved a connection between where people collected water and they fell ill, and he noticed men at a local brewery never contracted the disease because they drank beer from water that was boiled for malting. His theory was excoriated by leading medical men, so Snow was in that ever good company of scorned pioneers.

The playwright Ibsen probably knew the story when he penned The Enemy of the People nearly thirty years later. His fictitious Dr. Stockmann suspected the health spa in his town was contaminated, but its salubrious reputation filled the coffers. Officials denied it caused cholera outbreaks, and his former allies at the newspaper sided with the politicians. In standing alone he paid a heavy price.

These stories have modern resonances, although the new threats are from chemical pollution because bacterial contamination is cured by chlorination. A switch in the water supply exposed citizens in Flint MI to lead, carcinogens from coal ash spilled into wells in Belmont NC, and the oil MCHM overflowing into the Elk River contaminated the public water supply for Charleston WV.

When we experimented with water samples at home we were solely interested in taste, which is a comparatively trivial concern. Despite the ubiquity of this essence of life, the public has few choices for sourcing their drinking water and trust it doesn’t harbor invisible hazards. A faithful public watchdog, Dr. Stockmann was unjustly called an enemy of the people for casting doubt on his town’s supply, but it was those who tarred him who really deserved the label, along with anyone who calls for rolling back the Clean Water Act in the name of “jobs,” which I suspect is disingenuous cover for personal profit.

Next Post: A Cup of Tea


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