An Interview with Author James Salzman on the History of Drinking Water: Part II


Drinking Water A History

The United Water Blog sat down with Professor Jim Salzman from Duke University to speak about his new book, Drinking Water: A History.  We’re both water wonks who have an interest in bringing important information about the most essential public service – water – to a general audience.  And that is exactly what his new book does.  We asked him for his thoughts on popular water issues and debates; from bottled water, to infrastructure investments.

This is the second of two installments of our interview with Salzman.


UW Blog:  In your book that details the history of drinking water, you imply that there are historical incidences of people thinking that their water was safe and clean when it really wasn’t. And now there may be a perception that drinking water is less safe than it actually is.  Was there a historical incident that marked this change in perception?

Salzman: The question of  drinking water safety is  very interesting. To a certain extent it’s always been considered clean and drinkable.  Our notion of what is safe has changed. Every society throughout history has had to have some reliable sources of drinking water. They had no choice. Even before the understanding of the germ theory of disease entered our collective conscience, each society, 100 years or 500 years ago believed their water was “safe enough.” Sure, people got sick from time to time, but that was the nature of things.

Just a hundred years ago, dying from waterborne typhoid or cholera was commonplace in the United States. Waterborne diseases remained commonplace until municipal drinking water systems were built and water treatment techniques advanced. (Suggested Further Reading: In the Greatest Public Health Advancement of the 20th Century, a Lesson in Courage.)

What is interesting is, that from today’s perspective there are still people who believe that tap water is not safe. But I guess the question is; compared to what? It is far safer than a hundred years ago. And it is far safer than in many countries throughout the world. Are there traces of contaminants, or so-called emerging contaminants from pharmaceuticals, or personal care products? Sure. But our knowledge of those contaminants arose in part because we have much more advanced technologies that can detect parts from millions or trillions that may have always been there or are too dilute to pose significant threats.

One of the drivers of the bottled water market has been the assumption that bottled water is safer than tap water. But in terms of a regulatory oversight there is absolutely no reason to that it is true. Tap water is much more carefully monitored.  Tap water is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Many may not realize that bottled water that doesn’t cross state lines is regulated by state agencies – with effectively no federal oversight.

Municipalities test their tap water much more often and therefore are more likely to find contaminants than bottled water manufacturers.
To make the point, consider that Fiji Water a few years ago launched a marketing campaign with a label saying “It’s called Fiji Water because it’s not bottled in Cleveland”.  This was quite a diss of Cleveland but Cleveland had the last laugh. A scientific study compared 57 bottles of water with Cleveland tap water. About one-quarter of the bottled waters had higher bacteria levels than Cleveland’s water.”


UWBlog: We know high levels of water infrastructure investment are needed in this country – and United Water is investing $1 billion in its infrastructure over the next 5 years for reliability purposes.  What role does infrastructure investment play in safeguarding local water supplies?

Salzman: Water consumers generally share a widespread belief that cheap tap water is an entitlement, and this lead to an unwillingness to pay more for it. As a result, we are starving our water system of funds and have been doing so for years.

This has real consequences. Consider that, on average, a major water pipe bursts somewhere in the country every two minutes. Part of the reason is the system’s invisibility; the average citizen doesn’t give buried water pipes a thought until they burst and faucets run dry.

There is also a lack of public understanding of how antiquated our infrastructure has become.  Many of the great cities in the United States are supported by water pipes that were laid in the late 1800’s.


To read more, Drinking Water: A History, is available on


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