Impure Thoughts The EPA’s Water Hot Line Taps Into the District’s Deepest Fears

It’s a recipe for mayhem: First, District officials scare the living daylights out of city residents by telling them that their water is unsafe. Then they say it’s safe after all. Then they flip-flop on the flip-flop by laying bare months of water tests that have turned up contaminated water issuing from District faucets. Finally, in the midst of all the cloudy information, residents get a number to call for hard facts on the crisis.

On July 10, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) installed a special hot line to field calls from District residents who, for really good reasons, had stopped trusting the water-safety appraisals of city officials. The phones went crazy: On its first day, the hot line was flooded with over 800 calls, a tally that has since dropped to between 150 and 200 per day—approximately the same volume handled daily by the national hot line.

According to EPA hot-line staffers, the calls are divided into three categories. First, there’s the hordes of residents who call just to thank the EPA for getting involved. These calls have been so numerous that EPA staffers were forced to create a separate column in their logbooks. Next come intelligent inquiries from level-headed residents concerned about how the drinking water will affect their plants, pets, teeth, and dishes.

The final category should be labeled Miscellaneous Cranks.

“We do get our share of strange calls,” says an EPA water specialist who requested anonymity.

The EPA is prepared for the surge of wackos because it’s been down this river before. During the previous water crisis in 1993, the city’s water supply was infected by parasites called cryptosporidia.

A panic-stricken man called in swearing that he could see cryptosporidia—which are visible only through a microscope—swimming in his toilet bowl. It was 2 a.m., nature was calling, and the guy was frantic. He certainly wasn’t going to sit on the damned thing, which was brimming with hungry cryptosporidia, circling and gnashing their teeth. And he certainly couldn’t hold out forever. “I told him to flush,” the water specialist recalls. Problem solved. All government programs should be so efficient.

The cryptosporidia have subsided and been replaced by fecal coliform, but the nincompoops are still on a roll.

One of the District hot-line staffers recently took a call from a woman complaining about the alarming levels of chlorine in her water. No, she didn’t care that her sink smelled like a swimming pool. Or that her eyes would burn in the shower. Her problem was actually more pressing: She thought that the chlorine would get along poorly with the Epsom salt she uses to soak her feet. The chemical reaction, she feared, would emit lethal fumes and kill her. The EPA staffer had trouble finding a response on her “commonly asked questions” sheet.

Another woman concocted an even more far-fetched theory on the power of chlorine-laced District water. She called in to complain that her bath water was changing the color of her toenails. The staffer eventually persuaded her that the water was an unlikely culprit, seeing as the discoloration appeared only on one foot.

Through it all, EPA hot-line staff remain courteous and deferential, never pouncing on callers for coming up with a superbly dumb question about the whens and hows of boiling water. Just imagine how they could have abused the guy who wanted to know whether it was safe to cook pasta in the water. “Lemmesee—first you boil the water, then you put the pasta in. What’s your guess, pal?”

And when a guy called in to ask whether Listerine would kill the bacteria, the staffer answered sweetly, “We don’t know. Perhaps you should call the manufacturer.” The staffer ignored the desire to inquire further: “What did you have in mind, anyway? Adding a quarter-bottle of mouthwash to every glass of water you drink?”

But District callers haven’t managed to top a call from California a few years back that they still talk about down at hot-line central. A woman phoned to complain that her tap water was possessed by a demon. She knew this because she had fashioned a ring of aluminum foil around her bed, placed buckets of tap water within the ring, and slept in the center of the configuration. In the morning, the woman found bubbles around the edges of the buckets—proof positive, she thought, of demons. (If you think about it, the woman may have been on to something, because if bubbles don’t indicate the presence of a demon, how do you account for The Lawrence Welk Show?)

A South Dakota woman called in wanting to know why the government hadn’t warned her about the daily menace of exploding shower stalls. As it turned out, a salesman for water-treatment systems had been traveling around telling folks the chlorine in their shower spray could build up in gaseous form to the point where a stray spark could turn them into the cleanest bundle of body parts the undertaker ever saw.

Locally, there have been no calls thus far about chlorine’s explosive characteristics, but this particular bit of District dysfunction seems to have had a unique ability to tap into the psychosis of the masses. It must be something in the water.—Paul Belden

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