A Drop To Drink

16:43 minutes

a shoreline of a lake that is completely coated in a bright green algae
Blue green algae bloom on the shore of Catawaba Island, Ohio in Lake Erie. Taken in the summer 2009. Credit: NASA/NOAA/Public Domain via Wikimedia

illustrated stack of books with text "scifri book club"This is a part of our winter Book Club conversation about Dan Egan’s book ‘The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.’ Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app.

Do you know where your drinking water comes from? For more than 40 million people in the Great Lakes Basin, the answer is the abundant waters of Lake Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Huron, or Superior. 

This winter, the Science Friday Book Club has been reading Dan Egan’s The Death And Life of the Great Lakes, and unpacking the drastic ecological changes facing these bodies of water in the last century and beyond. But what about the changes to the water that might affect people who drink it? And does everyone who lives on the lakes actually have equal access? Great Lakes Now reporter Gary Wilson unpacks some of the threats to clean drinking water faced by the region’s residents, from Flint’s lead pipes to Lake Erie’s algae blooms to shutoffs for those who can’t afford to pay.

And Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains a recent report that connected disproportionate levels of drinking water contamination to communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color—all over the country.

Finally, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the origins of the word “mercury,” another pollutant that has plagued the Great Lakes.

From Brazil to New Jersey, you told us your concerns about water safety and access to clean drinking water in your area. Hear and see your stories below.

Donna Kashian, SciFri Book Club reader and biology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan on the SciFri VoxPop App
My tap water comes from the Detroit River, which is part of the connecting straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. And even though people associate Detroit as very industrial and polluted, the water is actually quite good and I prefer it over plastic bottles. You might have heard that the Detroit River was at the center of the news when Flint, Michigan switched its water from Flint River to the Detroit River, resulting in lead in drinking water. It is quite a long story, but it was not that the Detroit River had lead in it, it was a problem caused by the lower pH in the water and failure to properly treat the water resulting in lead leaching from pipes and, of course, politics.

Christi A. from Evansville, Indiana on the SciFri VoxPop app
We live in the country outside Evansville, Indiana. So we get our water from a well. There have been times when it has not been safe to drink from our well because we periodically get flooded by the Ohio River, which means our well is underwater. After that happens, we are required to put bleach in the well and then run that bleach out to sanitize the well. So yes we do have concerns occasionally, but not usually.

an instagram story that reads "right now in rio there is a huge water problem. water tastes, smells, and looks bad. i am afraid to drink" an instagram story screenshot that reads, "currently 60 boil water advisories in ontario. 40 of them are for first nations reserves"

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Segment Guests

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson is a senior correspondent in the Great Lakes Bureau of Detroit Public Television in Chicago, Illinois.

Kristi Pullen Fedinick

Kristi Pullen Fedinick is the director of Science and Data at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C..

Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re going to venture now back to the Great Lakes, where 20% of the surface freshwater on the planet. In one lake alone, 10% of that water is in Lake Superior alone. And the Science Friday Book Club is reading all about the lakes this month, looking at Dan Egan’s book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Book club czar Christie Taylor is back to take us on a tour of what it’s like to depend on the lake for your drinking water. Welcome back, Wisconsinite Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Never going to get past that, am I, Ira?

IRA FLATOW: Not in the Great Lakes area.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, like you said, the Great Lakes have a lot of water in them, quadrillions of gallons– I don’t even know how many billions that is– of freshwater, which is water you can drink, shower, and cook your food with, except sometimes you can’t. The people of Flint, Michigan are still recovering from a series of choices by their city leaders that led to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water five years ago. And Lake Erie now regularly has blooms of algae that produce toxins you can’t even boil out of your water. And you shouldn’t even touch it, much less drink it. That’s what happened in the city of Toledo, Ohio in the summer of 2014.

A report last year from the Natural Resources Defense Council points out that the undrinkable drinking water problem is a problem all over the country, but especially if you live in an area with more poor people, people of color, and non-English speakers. And this isn’t always in cities. Take this story from listener Kristy in Indiana, who submitted this story on the Science Friday VoxPop app.

KRISTY: We live in the country so we get our water from a well. There have been times when it has not been safe to drink from our well because we periodically get flooded by the Ohio River, which means our well is under water. After that happens, we are required to put bleach in the well and then run that bleach out to sanitize the well.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So we’re going to talk a bit about drinking water in the Great Lakes and beyond and the challenges to keeping water clean and accessible to everyone. My guests are Gary Wilson, a senior correspondent for Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Bureau. He’s in Chicago. Hey, Gary.

GARY WILSON: Hey, Christie. How are you?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I’m good, and we have Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of Science and Data at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. Welcome, Kristi.

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Hi, thanks so much, Christie. I’m glad the Christies are represented.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: There are a lot of Christies on this show today. So Gary, I’m going to actually start with you. When we talk about water access in the Great Lakes region, I think most people will think first about Flint, Michigan’s lead crisis, which started in 2014 and is arguably still continuing. Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled that Flint residents could move forward on suing their local and state leaders. But can you remind us all first how that lead got there in the first place?

GARY WILSON: Sure, Christie. Yeah, I think any discussion regarding Flint and the Flint water crisis needs to start with a look back at the financial disinvestment that took place in that city, going back decades well before the water crisis. And that was generally led by the decline of the auto industry and related industries that supported auto. So Flint has been in desperate financial straits and was put under the auspices of an emergency manager by the state of Michigan. There is a law that allows that.

And the decision was made by that manager to switch the source of Flint’s drinking water from Lake Huron via Detroit to the Flint River. What followed that decision that many think was taken rather cavalierly and was essentially a financial decision, what followed was a cascade of mismanagement, neglect, failed state and federal oversight. And all that led to a city of 100,000 people that’s majority African-American to be exposed to lead poisoning via its drinking water and literally surviving on bottled water, as you could see in the national headlines.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Yeah, and just to be clear, the lead in the water in Flint, it didn’t come from the river water, but from reactions between the river water and the old pipes that the city was relying on, right?


CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And Kristi, many, including you, have called Flint’s crisis a case of really massive environmental injustice. What are you talking about when you say there’s environmental injustice?

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I mean, getting back to what Gary just said about the financial disinvestment, I mean, we live in a country that has a long history of racial and economic segregation and disenfranchisement. And so there are numerous communities, even to this day, that remain racially and economically separated. And communities of color and low income communities often suffer from that significant disinvestment from both public and private entities.

And so even though the data that we have for the Safe Drinking Water Act don’t necessarily tell us all of the explicit reasons, if you live in a place where your infrastructure is not being updated quickly, you’re going to suffer when that infrastructure breaks down.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And the NRDC that you work for, you have data finding that this connection between marginalization and poor water quality is really happening all over the country. What’s the scale of that? How many people are we talking about?

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, so we analyzed data from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is the federal law that is meant to protect our water in this country. And we found that almost 130 million people, or nearly 40% of the US population, received their drinking water from a system that violated that Safe Drinking Water Act between June of 2016 and May of 2019. And of those 130 million, about 44 million receive their water from systems that violated a health based standard. And so it’s really a big problem in terms of the types and the scope of the contamination that we’re seeing across the country.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And you mentioned health problems. And I think when we talk about water contamination, there is this implicit understanding that health is involved. But can you really unpack what the stakes are when we’re talking about contaminated drinking water?

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, absolutely. So we really think about the issues that can arise in our health. The very short term things that can happen, so you can have gastrointestinal distress, for example. And so there’s some pathogens that can be in the water that if you’re a healthy, active person will just kind of give you an upset stomach and some gastrointestinal symptoms. But if they’re immunocompromised or elderly or young, these pathogens can actually lead to death, very acutely.

So we think a lot about those types of impacts. We think about cancer. So typically this is over a lifetime that there are multiple carcinogens that are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and others that aren’t quite regulated. But we still think about those. We think about things that can impact our fertility. We think about things that can impact our brain development like lead. So there are really just a lot of different health impacts that we think about and really want to try to understand when communities and individuals are being exposed to contaminated water.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Gary, I think a lot of people would look at a body of water like, say, Lake Michigan or Lake Huron when we’re talking, again, quadrillions of gallons of water total. And we say this water, it’s clear, it’s beautiful, it’s massive. I have no reason not to take it for granted. How would you qualify that, especially in the Great Lakes region, but maybe also for water on the whole?

GARY WILSON: Well, the region has a bit of a history of– and I don’t think it’s just the region– but taking the water for granted. These big beautiful lakes, and we think, well, I go, I turn the tap on, the water tastes good. It can’t happen here. There’s a little bit of that mentality. But I think based on what happened in Flint and also in Toledo with the Toldeo water crisis, that was a wake up for a lot of people. Those communities, the Toledo water crisis, people woke up, 400,000 people on a Saturday morning, and they couldn’t drink the water from the tap, and there was no notice. Bottled water was sold out in a nanosecond, so to speak.

So all of a sudden, people are starting to think, wait a second, what’s going on? What do I need to do here? Do I need to pay more attention to my local water supplier? And one of the reporters in Toledo has told me that years after the Toldeo water crisis, there are people there who still refuse to drink water from the tap. They will only drink bottled water. So what’s happening is bad, but it’s getting people’s attention.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure. Well, and Kristi has talked about environmental injustice in the case of Flint. Is there a justice component to the algae in Lake Erie and Toledo’s crisis or cities along Lake Erie?

GARY WILSON: Well, it’s less visible because the algae affected 400,000, 500,000 if you actually get out of greater Toledo. Some villages in Michigan were actually impacted. Because they get their water from Lake Erie. But when you’re sprinting to the store to buy bottled water to cook and to bathe and do all kinds of things, bottled water is expensive. So people who are disadvantaged financially are going to be less likely to afford it and be at higher risk.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Kristi, do you have anything to add to that?

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, I was going to stay, even outside of the algae blooms, which, again, it’s a bit hard to see at this point, but when we did look at the national data, we found that race really had the strongest relationship to slow and ineffective enforcement of that federal drinking water law across all communities.

And we found that communities that had higher portions of their population that were people of color had higher rates of violations. We found that systems that were in chronic violation of the law, so those that had violations every single time frame we looked at within the three-year period that we studied, they were 40% more likely to be in communities with higher proportions of their populations that were communities of color. And so really, when we’re thinking about these injustices, both locally, regionally, and nationally, there are factors that we see that are related, that even if we don’t see on the surface, it could be there a little bit under there.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So what does the law say about all this? It seems if there are this many violations or if they’re lingering in this way, that there would be some kind of consequence for people who are– or for entities that are responsible for these kinds of problems.

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, I mean, there are enforcement actions. Oftentimes there are two different categories. We can have informal and formal actions. But even those formal enforcement actions which could involve penalties, they often don’t. And we found that even in communities– again, communities that had larger proportions of their population that were people of color– that even when those formal enforcement actions were taken, the system still remained in violation. So it’s either saying that those enforcement actions aren’t enough to actually compel the system to get into compliance, or there’s some underlying reason that these communities continue to suffer these really long range and long term effects.


GARY WILSON: And Christie, if I could add to that, Michigan is in the process. It’ll take forever to fix the National Safe Drinking Water Act likely. And Michigan, a couple of years ago, started the process of updating their Safe Drinking Water Act to focus on lead. And they’re in the final stages of implementing it. And in general, the Michigan governor now, Gretchen Whitmer, has made a tremendous effort to include environmental justice issues in their planning for safe drinking water.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, so we should not take for granted that our water is clean, but are there any practical steps that people can take if they’re not sure what’s going on with their water or want to make sure that the bodies of water near them are as good as they can be for providing for them? Kristi.

KRISTI PULLEN FEDINICK: Yeah, I mean, I would say that the first thing to do is to know where your water is coming from. So when you turn on that tap, if you’re not served by your own private well, then knowing who your water system is and trying to keep track of what the drinking water issues might be– so a lot of water utilities have Twitter feeds and other types of ways that they communicate with consumers, so trying to stay as informed as possible. But ultimately, this really is about the water systems doing the job that they’re supposed to do for the public protection.

And there’s been such an erosion of trust– and Gary mentioned this earlier– from communities and Flint and Newark and other places, that people just don’t trust that their water is safe. And so I think that the water systems need to be going out and engaging more with the public, helping them understand the process, helping them understand the types of testing and cleaning that they’re doing and the limitations to that. Because it really isn’t about solving the problem one bottle of water at a time. It’s really about ensuring that entire communities have access to clean water when they turn on that tap.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Gotcha. And Gary, in, like, 30 seconds, what stories are you looking at for water coming forward?

GARY WILSON: Well, I am tracking very closely the issue about the human right to water. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on her first day in office back in May ended water shut-offs and is implementing a water affordability plan, checking to see if other cities like Detroit follow suit.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Great. Well, thank you so much, both of you. That’s all the time we have. Gary Wilson, senior correspondent at the Great Lakes Bureau for Detroit Public Television, and Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of Science and Data for the Natural Resources Defense Council. And just reminding you, I’m Christie Taylor, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

Speaking of polluted waters, one thing that we know is in the Great Lakes and other bodies of water is mercury, a toxic silver metal that’s famous for being liquid at room temperature. While mercury is no longer the Great Lakes pollution problem it was decades ago, it is still in some fish. And there are some signs that it may be getting worse again, thanks to climate change. And with a name like mercury, also a planet and a Roman god, you know there is a good story in store. Here to tell it is our resident word nerd, Science Diction producer Johanna Mayer. Hey, Johanna.

JOHANNA MAYER: Hey, Christie.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So cut to the chase. Where does the word mercury come from?

JOHANNA MAYER: So it actually all starts with alchemists. Mercury is–


JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah, mercury is one of the oldest elements. We’ve known about it since antiquity. And it played this really central role in alchemy kind of across the globe. And so these alchemists tended to kind of colloquially refer to it as quicksilver, which maybe you’ve heard before. And then when the name was eventually formalized to mercury, it had this twofold meaning. The first was that Roman god that you mentioned, Mercury, who was known for being particularly quick and agile. And then also the planet Mercury just happens to be the fastest moving planet in our solar system.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, OK. But so when you look at the periodic table, it is Hg. Neither of those letters is in the word mercury. What’s going on?

JOHANNA MAYER: I know, it always seems so unfair in chemistry class. But it actually makes more sense than you would think. Because it’s a nod to the element’s old name, hydrargyrum, which means water silver. So that’s where the Hg comes from.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, so mercury. It is wet, fast, and silvery. We got these things going on. There’s also this long history here of it being used in not great medical ways.

JOHANNA MAYER: Yes, so for a really long time, people were not totally sure what the deal was with mercury, how it worked, how it didn’t work. And for hundreds of years, mercury was basically used as the go to medical cure for pretty much anything that was ailing you. Like, you were experiencing constipation. Pop a mercury pill.


JOHANNA MAYER: Stomach was upset, pop a mercury pill. Did you come down with yellow fever? Try popping a mercury pill. It was the catch-all cure. And the reason behind that was because when you took one of these mercury pills, it purged you. It’s an induced rather swift bowel and stomach movements and kind of just flushed everything out, which sounds super unappealing. It was probably very uncomfortable.

But the reasoning behind that was left over from the idea of humoral theory, from the ancient Greek and Roman idea that there were these four fluids that should be in balance in your body. And so the idea was maybe you’re feeling sick. One fluid, you have too much of it. There’s too little of another fluid. Pop a mercury pill. Purge it all out.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, so like a 19th century goop we’ve got. All right.

JOHANNA MAYER: Yes. Don’t do that.


JOHANNA MAYER: Just to be clear.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Please don’t take mercury pills. What is next for Science Diction?

JOHANNA MAYER: We have a really fun project coming down the pike. We’re turning Science Diction into a podcast. So each episode is going to look at the origin story behind one specific word or phrase. They’ll be a short fun little dose of nerdery in your week. And so make sure that you’re subscribed to the Science Friday podcast because that’s where those episodes will drop. And in the meantime, you can stay up to speed by signing up for our newsletter at ScienceFriday.com/sciencediction.

IRA FLATOW: Love it.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: All right, cool. Thank you so much, Johanna Mayer, host of the upcoming– you heard it here– Science Diction podcast.

IRA FLATOW: Can’t wait.


IRA FLATOW: And thank you, Christie Taylor, producer of the Science Friday Book Club. This month’s pick is Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Learn more about how to participate at ScienceFriday.com/bookclub.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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