Hollywood Fills Screens with Tales of Deadly Water

In this age of political correctness Hollywood has trouble finding bad guys that dont offend some group or another. Lately it seems the movie industry has discovered that a threat to our drinking water makes for scary cinema and the "enemies" can be either faceless bugs or evil corporations.

In this age of political correctness Hollywood has trouble finding bad guys that dont offend some group or another. Lately it seems the movie industry has discovered that a threat to our drinking water makes for scary cinema and the "enemies" can be either faceless bugs or evil corporations.

Two recent movies have focused on the dangers of drinking water, including the hit "A Civil Action," which was the top box office draw the week it opened. As most of you probably know by now, "A Civil Action" recounts a 1980s lawsuit against two major companies filed by the citizens of Woburn, Mass. The citizens alleged that the companies polluted the towns drinking water, sparking a cancer cluster that killed a number of the towns children.

A network television movie last fall had hundreds of people dying from a new strain of Cryptosporidium that could withstand disinfection, filtration and even boiling water! At the last minute, ozone equipment was brought in to save the day.

I find it interesting that these movies premiered just after the Environmental Protection Agency released its regulations governing Consumer Confidence Reports. At a time when water utilities across the country are gearing up to provide their customers with detailed reports on contaminants in the local water and any permit violations, John Q public is walking away from movie theaters convinced that tap water can be lethal.

Reacting to the movie Civil Action, the American Water Works Association released a fact sheet for journalists reporting on drinking water quality issues (www.awwa.org/civil.htm) . It discusses the steps taken in the 25 years since the Safe Drinking Water Act was first passed. It also directs journalists to information on such programs as the Partnership for Safe Water and the well-head protection program.

At about the same time, a group called Environmental Media Services began a campaign to place the film in a larger social context. Its "Civil Active" Internet site (www.civilactive.com) provides a host of information about the dangers of contaminated drinking water.

While the AWWA fact sheet mentions that 94 percent of water systems in the U.S. met or performed better than federal health-based standards for water quality, the Civil Active site noted that EPA data from 1996 showed that at least 35 million Americans got water from systems that fell short of Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

While AWWA talked about the billions of dollars invested in advanced water treatment technologies, Civil Active warned that our water is threatened by pesticides, microorganisms, lead, arsenic, radon and trihalomethanes.

As I was comparing the two it struck me that the AWWA was scholarly, knowledgeable, but ever so slightly boring. The Civil Active site, however, was lively, entertaining and just a little scary. The AWWA was like a kind old uncle saying "Dont worry, youre safe," while the Civil Active site screamed "The sky is falling!"

Given time to think, I would listen to the calmer voice of reason, knowing that the vast majority of our drinking water systems do a competent job and tap water is perfectly safe. But the loud, insistent voice of fear is hard to ignore. Maybe thats why it makes for such great cinema.

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