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Joseph Harrison

Chris Bentley/MEDILL

Joseph Harrison pours a glass of filtered water in his Glenview home. Harrison was chief of EPA Region V's safe drinking water branch from 1973 to 1990 and technical director of the Water Quality Association afterwards for 20 years before retiring last year.


Water guru Joseph Harrison keeps your tap safe

by Chris Bentley
March 15, 2011


At 67 years old, Joe Harrison still recalls the legislative numbers for environmental statutes in casual conversation. But Harrison's co-workers would expect no less from the man who literally wrote the book on water treatment technology. 

After leading the Chicago-based Great Lakes region of the Environmental Protection Agency safe drinking water branch for 17 years, Harrison left his post in 1990 to develop the first third-party certification program for home water treatment technology at the Lisle-based not-for-profit Water Quality Association. EPA’s Region V includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. 

Last year he retired, although he continues to consult with the association, for whom he wrote a water treatment handbook still in use. 

“Back in the days before EPA, we had standards for maybe 20 things,” Harrison recalled. Now EPA regulates hundreds of contaminants. Harrison has had a front-row seat to the advent of the command-and-control age of environmental regulation in the U.S. 

In 1968 he entered the U.S. Public Health Service as a commissioned officer, fulfilling his military duty. “Everybody wanted to fulfill their military obligation that way instead of going to Vietnam,” he said. 

Harrison had to battle nonetheless. In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a watershed environmental provision that charged the EPA with protecting public water supplies in the U.S. — but putting it into practice was no easy task. 

“It’s a selling job to get people to understand that you need to meet this new level,” Harrison said. “They see this water every day, they drink it, they raise their kids on it, and they don’t see how it could be dangerous.” 

Waukesha’s radium-rich spa waters were once a selling point for the southern Wisconsin town — they even talked about piping it down to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair. The body incorporates ingested radium into bones as it does calcium, where the element continues to emit radiation that can cause bone and blood cancers. 

“They all of a sudden switched from thinking this was a good thing,” Harrison said, “to having to spend hundreds of millions to switch to another source of water.” Not surprisingly, some officials in Waukesha resisted the EPA’s order. The town only started to use new wells in recent years. 

Harrison’s regional office comprised two members when he joined the EPA in the early 1970s. When he retired in 1990, its payroll totaled about 70 employees. 

“We were kind of in the right place at the right time,” said Harrison, who became chief of EPA region V’s safe drinking water division just one year after the Clean Water Act took effect. 

And while the agency’s staff multiplied, the litany of potentially hazardous substances grew exponentially. 

At the Chemical Abstracts Service in Columbus, Ohio, about 4,000 new compounds are registered each day. Most of them will never be produced, but Harrison said the prolific nature of synthetic substances underscores the difficulty of keeping drinking water safe. Harrison said the trick is to choose surrogate chemicals to stand in for groups, and focus on those that are hardest to remove. 

“You can’t get more than a few inches or feet away from a synthetic compound these days,” Harrison said. He remembers when, as a boy, his father worried that raw material for automobile tires would become scarce along with the shrinking rubber tree population. 

Harrison is careful to note that synthetic compounds are essential to our modern quality of life — imagine life without plastic or prescription medicine. But they also represent a special challenge for regulators. Pharmacological chemicals, which generally are not regulated right now, can cause damage in concentrations as low as one part per trillion — proportionate to a few feet of travel on a trip to the moon.   

“He’s definitely a water guru,” said Sarah Zrout, quality manager at the Water Quality Association. Zrout said Harrison’s was a “well-respected name” in the water industry, one she had heard before working for him at the Water Quality Association. “Everyone thought of him very fondly. I think his knowledge has been passed on and preserved.” 

Now retired, Harrison spends more time in his native Wisconsin, where he maintains a house upstate, although he lives in Glenview. But as Zrout points out, he stays “One hundred percent informed on the current issues.” 

Not one to slack off, he said his goal is still helping the Water Quality Association “get good [water treatment] products out there that people can trust,” something his three grandkids might thank him for one day when they reach for a glass of water.