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Contaminated drinking water is America’s most significant public crisis, says author and activist

water faucet
Flickr user Bart
Author and activist Seth Siegel says that drinking water contamination is the most significant public health crisis of our time.

The Flint water crisis showed the state—and the country—that clean drinking water isn't something we can take for granted. But it isn’t just Flint. Recent water samples put St. Clair Shores on the list of Michigan communities with high levels of lead in their water. Other areas of the state are worried about PFAS contamination.

Seth Siegel is the author of the new book Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink, which looks at contamination in America's drinking water. Siegel contends that drinking water contamination in the U.S. has become the most significant public health crisis of our time.

“We have a broken water program in the United States. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is asleep at the switch. Our individual utilities are, some, doing a good job, but in the main, they are not,” he said.

Most water problems give you “a long warning signal before they burst into your face,” said Siegel, and there are solutions. But actually implementing those solutions would require politicians and government regulatory agencies to take action on key issues, including transparent testing, upgraded technology, and more manpower.

“Drinking water in the United States is the most significant and least discussed public health threat of our time, and it’s all the more tragic because we can fix the problem with existing technology and at affordable prices,” Siegel said.

There are approximately 120,000 chemicals in commerce in the U.S. on a daily basis, said Siegel. The EPA only regulates 70 of them. The last time the agency added a new chemical to the list of regulated contaminants was in 1996.

A group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—or PFAS—has become a growing concern for residents around Michigan and across the country.

This group of chemicals is resistant to heat, water, and oil. For decades, they have been used in many industrial applications and consumer products such as carpeting, GORE-TEX, upholstery, food paper wrappings, and firefighting foams. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to various health problems.

Michigan stands to have the lowest legal limits for PFAS in drinking water if recommendations made by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) are implemented.

Siegel said the thing that has united every successful campaign to clean up drinking water has been the activism of everyday people.

“Every time there has been a significant step forward in drinking water quality and safety, every single time, it comes about as a result of consumers, ordinary folks, becoming frightened about what comes out of their tap and demanding better."

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

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