My Journey Through the (Un)safe Water Looking-Glass

Latest drinking water crisis in Philadelphia hits close to home.

Philadelphia residents wait in line to buy bottled water.


Larry Levine/NRDC

Learn More: What's Happening in Philadelphia

This weekend, I found an unexpected item on my to-do list: purchase bottled water. Lots of it. Just in case…a toxic spill upriver gets into my family’s drinking water. 

At about 1 p.m. on Sunday, I was out in the park with my preschooler, enjoying the warmest day of the year and, gleefully, the first ice cream truck visit of the year. 

Suddenly, I received an emergency text from the city of Philadelphia. It warned that the city “recommends using bottled water starting [at] 2 p.m., 3/26/2023”—that is, in one hour—“due to [a] chemical spill in the Delaware River.” 

As an environmental lawyer and professional advocate for safe, clean water, I’d seen this before…but never on my own phone, in my own city.

The text (and an equivalent e-mail alert) linked to additional information on the city’s website. A factory spilled an estimated 8,100 gallons of latex finishing material into a creek (or was it 12,000 gallons?), about eight miles upstream of the Delaware River intake for Philadelphia’s drinking water system. The alert sought to assure us that the warning was out of “an abundance of caution” and that “[o]ur best information is that people who ingest water will not suffer any near-term symptoms or acute medical conditions.” 

Unfortunately, given the frequency at which initial, cheery-sounding assessments of health risks for toxic spills have proven wrong, it was pretty hard not to be skeptical. On the other hand, an executive for the company that spilled the chemicals said not to worry: “It’s like the material you find in paint…It’s your typical acrylic paint you have in your house.” So we’re all good. Bottoms up!

As the father of two young children, I began to think about what I needed to do to ensure my family had safe drinking water in our home. I also thought about my mother-in-law, who lives two blocks from us. And then I started thinking about friends in the city, who may not have seen the alert immediately. I frantically started texting and e-mailing to let people know. I also wondered how the city was reaching out to people who didn’t have phones or an easy way to access this information. 

Within half an hour, lines at the grocery store in my neighborhood stretched out the door, with people hoping to buy bottled water before the shelves were stripped bare. We ended up with four cases of 17-ounce water bottles—and a ton of plastic.

Even as someone who knows a thing or two about water pollution and drinking water systems, the city’s communications throughout the day were rather bewildering. The first text alert arrived at 1 p.m. But the city had released a statement to the same effect at 10:30 a.m.—not that anyone would have seen it then on its website. Then, about four hours after the initial text, another one, with an apparent reprieve: Actually, the city said, it had reassessed things and the water is still safe…at least until 11:59 p.m. the next day. 

Within a single afternoon, the city had gone from advising everyone to immediately buy bottled water to saying that there is “no risk” of using tap water throughout Sunday and Monday. But, it advised, people may want to take advantage of that time to fill up bottles and pitchers with tap water. And there was no statement this time that the warning is “out of an abundance of caution.” (Though perhaps it is?) A sword of Damocles is hanging over Philadelphians’ heads.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), which regulates both water polluters and drinking water systems, added nothing of substance with its brief public statement. And its federal counterpart, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, appears to have stayed mum entirely, even though its regional office is in Philadelphia.

The uncertainty remains. The midafternoon update on Monday offered some additional information regarding the water testing that the city is doing. But it still didn’t explain the detection limits of the testing method, or how that compares to the levels they’re considering safe so we can know what it means when they say tests didn’t find any contamination. 

What will Tuesday bring? We don’t yet know. The city’s 5 p.m. update on Monday reported that it is “confident that tap water…will remain safe at least through 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.” At the same time, it recommended keeping a three-day supply of water on hand, and conceded that “a conservative estimate allows [the city] to expect that this event will be completely resolved by next week.” So, I went to bed again last night—and may still for many more nights—not knowing if the water will be safe to drink tomorrow. Just like so many others around the country have done before us. And, in all likelihood, like so many others will do in the future.

There is so much more work to do to prevent these incidents from recurring: Reinvesting in our nation’s neglected drinking water infrastructure, strengthening drinking water regulations, and enforcing water pollution and chemical safety laws. Equally important, cities, states, and the federal government need to prioritize protections and support vulnerable populations, such as environmental justice and low-income communities who so often experience unequal access to safe drinking water and unequal enforcement of our environmental laws.  

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