‘Troubled Water’ author calls attention to drinking water crisis in US

Flint, Michigan, has become a household name because of its water crisis. But Seth Siegel, an attorney author and activist, warns that water contamination in the U.S. is not contained to just one city. It is, he argues, is a national problem.

Siegel, joined in conversation by WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence, talked at UWM Wednesday about the threat to drinking water in the U.S. that spurred his new book “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink.”

As part of its Master Chats series, the UWM Alumni Association welcomed Siegel to the Student Union’s Wisconsin Room to discuss his latest book, which came out on Oct. 1.

Something in the water

Siegel’s work is bookended by the stories of two cities on opposite ends of the country — one to show readers the magnitude of the water problem and one to give readers hope, Siegel said.

Susan Bence, environmental reporter at WUWM, talks with Seth Siegel, author of “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink,” during a Master Chats discussion Wednesday at the UWM Student Union. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

The story opens on Hoosick Falls, New York, a small town that produced Teflon products for years before someone noticed several people developing deadly diseases like cancer. Teflon is made with PFOA, a chemical that makes products more water resistant – and can cause health problems when large amounts find their way into the body, Siegel said.

The deadly chemical was not filtered from the citizens’ water, but this is not uncommon, Siegel said.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates only 70 chemicals in our drinking water and 91 contaminants, Siegel said.

He notes that the EPA has not regulated any new chemical for 23 years, even with the many advancements in technology, manufacturing and pharmaceutical industry that create new, possibly harmful chemicals.

“I was shocked by the fact that more people didn’t know this,” he said. “That was the moment that I realized I had to write this book.”

The story of Hoosick Falls reveals how the EPA is not adequately protecting public health, Siegel said.

“There’s a halo around the EPA. They’re the good guys. They look out for us,” he said. But he argues that with only 70 chemicals regulated, drinking water can still be pronounced legally compliant while contaminants that can cause cancers, harm brain development and even possibly lower IQ are still present.

“Legal does not necessarily equal safe.”

Spreading the word

The book and the talk closed with the story of Orange County, California’s second-largest county, which is taking great strides to provide clean drinking water.

For only 66 cents a week per person, the county invested in technology to filter out many of the harmful chemicals that the EPA does not regulate, Siegel said. It is an achievable future for the U.S. and something to hope for despite how overwhelming the situation can feel, he said.

“Every single problem that we have is absolutely fixable with current technology, with current research, at definitely affordable prices,” he said. “It’s about education.”

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