Wednesday, January 26, 2011

WATER - January 27, 2011

Once again, the newspapers tell us of minor contamination in the drinking water in Madison. Sometimes it is a chemical element, particularly if it is radioactive. At other times, it might be a whole chemical or a bacterium or a virus. Often it is a pollutant that cannot be surely written off as harmless, but threatening enough that there are people who will buy bottled water or invest in a filtering system that requires rejuvenation every six months or so. There are several ways to deal with such a marginal threat, but the cheapest one is for the answerable agency to deny that there is an actual threat there, until all the dodges have been exhausted and the responsible authorities must, finally, deal with the situation. Even when they must eventually do the right thing, the time to correct it can be stretched out by the injection of uncertainty until, in the meantime, much harm can have been done. An outstanding example was the downwinders of Utah living to the NE of the testing range for nuclear weapons. The US Government denied for a whole generation that they were facing deadly radiation while the children grew up to lives dominated by thyroid cancer. Less horrible, but bad enough, were the denials that coal dust was causing cancer, similarly with asbestos, cotton lint, and various sorts of dust. In every such instance there was a commercial interest that would benefit financially by having the threat overlooked, permanently if possible but profitable if temporary. So there was the campaign to prevent the removal of lead from gasoline, to say nothing of the decades of denials that smoking helps cause cancer. In Madison, it is time to take by the horns the obligation to provide the city with drinking water as safe as can be, either by running a system of providing pure water as soon as possible or at least a filter system that flushes itself automatically so that decades can pass between replacement of filters. Until that happens, many people will drink bottled water, and many will discard the bottles where their disposition will be a burden on the City, which will not be adequately addressed by complaining about the bottles that have to be rounded up and disposed of.

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