Perhaps you know Erin Brockovich best from her biopic, the award-winning eponymous film released in the year 2000. Brockovich (portrayed by Julia Roberts) finds evidence that the groundwater in Hinkley, California, is contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium—then fights a direct-action lawsuit against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for its culpability in the case. Brockovich (spoiler alert) wins the legal battle: A triumphant end, the credits roll, and the work is done…right?
Not quite. “I began my work in Hinkley when I was 31. I’m now 61, and I think the conversation is more relevant today than it was then,” Brockovich says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Since the famous case, she has become an environmental activist, consumer advocate, and legal clerk—she also recently penned a book titled Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It, and she launched a newsletter, The Brockovich Report, to deliver unfiltered information about what’s truly going on with our water.
So, no, Brockovich is not done fighting the water crisis and making sure everyone has access to safe, clean drinking water—and, in turn, neither are we.
What you need to know today about polluted water.
First and foremost? Know that it’s real. “I think for a lot of reasons, we assumed that agencies would be taking care of any water pollution issue that we had, and we were comfortable in that,” Brockovich explains. When in reality, “it’s a lot of cover-ups. It’s a lot of kicking the can down the line, thinking the next administration will do it.” That’s not to say agencies or governing bodies are outright refusing to make any changes—it just may take a little nudge from the people to bring it to their attention.
We might not be dealing with hexavalent chromium, like Brockovich investigated in 2000, but she says other harmful chemicals have been sneaking their way in: “There is one chemical that is the largest emerging contaminant in our water supply today, which is PFOA.” It’s a type of “forever chemical” that is typically used as a coating for products like Teflon, firefighting foam, and Scotchgard. When the chemical infiltrates drinking water, it can accumulate in the body—which has been linked to a host of health issues.
To back up Brockovich’s claim: The Environmental Working Group reported PFOAs in 94 public water systems in 27 states, which provide drinking water for more than 6.5 million people. And after several years of analyzing individuals exposed to these chemicals, research from the Environmental Health Perspectives journal linked these exposures to adverse health effects—such as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and thyroid disease.
How to know if your water is safe.
If you’re concerned (or just curious) about your tap water, Brockovich recommends calling your municipality. “You should be getting municipal water quarterly reports of what is or isn’t in your water,” she notes, so you can do your research there. You can also talk to your neighbors about what they’re experiencing—or if anything seems off-kilter. And if you’re still stuck for answers? Brockovich says you can always visit your local city council. “I encourage them to show up.”
Also take stock of any shifts happening to your body: “If you’re taking a shower every day and nothing’s wrong, and then suddenly you smell too much chlorine; or your skin starts to develop a rash; or your eyes are watering; or your scalp is itching—you can bet there’s been a change to your water,” says Brockovich. “And there’s a whole host of reasons why that change may be occurring.” (We should note: These changes can happen for other reasons, too, not just your water; but it’s still important to rule out.)
For example, she refers to a group of women in Hannibal, Missouri, who noticed they were dealing with lead in their drinking water—after investigating, they found that the city had added ammonia to the disinfection system, which effectively corroded their lead water pipes and was likely making them sick. (The citizens subsequently voted to remove the use of ammonia in the system). The moral of the story: Listen to your body, and don’t be afraid to speak up.
“Observe what’s going on around you; don’t be afraid to ask a question; don’t be afraid to show up at a city council meeting,” says Brockovich. “Listen to that gut, that second brain that you have—it’s never wrong.” See, you don’t have to be a doctor, scientist, or lawyer to know instinctively that something is off with your neighborhood water supply. “You don’t have to have that pedigree, if you will, to speak up, speak out, show up, and share information,” she adds. “You might actually be surprised at what you find.”
Of course, we are not going to solve this water crisis overnight—but Brockovich says you can start to implement change in your own backyard if you take the time to notice what’s going on around you. “Imagine if every single one of us, the minute we had a water problem, followed that kind of protocol across this country. We might start finding more answers,” she notes.
We should also acknowledge that this information can feel overwhelming—we’re not trying to scare you into thinking your tap has been poisoned. All Brockovich asks is for you to take a moment to reflect on your surroundings—a few minutes of stillness to reflect on your water.
“You have to take that moment to find the motivation to go, ‘You know what, I’m curious about my water. I’m going to get my water quality report,'” she says. “Just recognize it, find it, and take that one task and see it through to the end. It may take two years, but stay with it—stay in the game.”