Is It Safe to Drink the Water?
The most up-to-date version of this piece can be found in the Duke Law Scholarship
published at, 19 Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum 1 (2008)
Throughout history, societies have been predicated on ready access to sources of drinking water, whether in the cisterns of Masada high above the Dead Sea, the graceful aqueducts carrying water into Rome, or the sacred Aboriginal water holes in Australia’s outback. But access is not enough. The water has to be safe to drink. And this presupposes a deceptively simple question - how do we know what “safe” water is?
In 21st century America, the answer seems simple - government experts and scientists tell us. We take for granted that our tap water is subject to exacting chemical and biological analyzes. The name of the relevant federal law - The Safe Drinking Water Act - says it all. Yet, in historical terms, the very idea of the need to conduct detailed chemical and biological analyzes, much less even appreciating why we should care about drinking water’s invisible contents, is still stunningly novel. The germ theory of disease has only been around for about 150 years, a recent development compared to the history of human settlement. And, even today, legitimate questions are being asked about our drinking water. Are the standards stringent enough? Does the infrastructure delivering our water meet these standards? How can we be sure we are even regulating the right substances?
This article explores how societies through history have answered the timeless question, “Is it safe to drink the water?” Our technical understanding of water safety is more sophisticated than ever before, but a society’s understanding and regulation of drinking water has never been a purely technical matter. While the Safe Drinking Water Act may look dramatically different than the laws and norms relied on by other societies and in other times, they share far more similarities than differences.
Norms and values shape our management of safe drinking water just as surely as do chemical assays. The fundamental problem, as we shall see, is that no source of water can ever be safe in completely objective terms, either today or two hundred years from now. Because of the universality of this challenge, because safety is an eternally moving target, one can take valuable lessons from the historical record. The article explores how societies have changed their conception of safe drinking water through time, shifting their behavior, governance and laws as a result, and what this means for us today.
Date of Authorship for this Version
drinking water, safe water, history
Salzman, James, "Is It Safe to Drink the Water?" (2009). Duke Law School Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 174.