A few years ago, before he started clashing with the Philadelphia Water Department, Mohamed Zerban worked for it as an intern, crafting a fairly impressive resume. He helped with AutoCAD drafting software and mapped out their pipelines and different pressure areas and had some involvement in testing procedures.
It was no surprise then, when Zerban met with Water Department officials earlier this year, they remembered him and brought up his past work while talking about his new company, Tern Water. But the callback to his time at the Water Department was probably the high point for pleasantries. The rest involved serious questioning and correcting.
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Tern Water, through a campaign called Know Your Water, has been testing the Philly supply and reporting what it considers dangerous levels of contaminants in almost everyone’s water. The results don’t match the Water Department’s, and the ethos of the company, testing water that’s already been tested by the city, has touched a nerve.
“We don’t see a need for it,” says Debra McCarty, commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department. “I also question the ethics because they’re sampling water. They’re not following standard methods, protocol. They are not an accredited lab and now they’re going to sell water filters? It seems a bit self-serving for me.”
The feud that’s since developed between Tern and PWD is a story that illustrates the risks of disruption as well as the vulnerability of bureaucracy. After all, PWD’s responsibility, like every municipal department, stops at the water main, before the water flows through aging pipes of buildings and homes and finally out of your faucet. But does the absence of in-home testing mean Zerban is providing a reasonable service? Just because the opportunity for disruption is there, does it necessarily follow that he’s disrupting an industry worth disrupting?
Zerban looks at water quality as “the problem of our country—if not the age.”
“Flint people thought it was not that bad,” he says. “We don’t want to be in that position. We want to know. We don’t want to have a vision of what the system actually looks like. We want to take actionable steps.”
So Zerban, who is originally from Egypt, founded Tern Water while still a student at Drexel. The company’s main product is the Smart Faucet. Set to launch privately this spring, it’s something like a water filter for the iPhone generation. It attaches to your sink and keeps track of the filter status, water usage and water quality, delivering the information to an app on your smartphone.
While preparing for the Smart Faucet, Zerban says, Tern Water became interested in what was already coming out of people’s taps. The company started a program called Know Your Water. For $25, anybody can get an on-demand test: Tern Water sends a receptacle for a homeowner or resident to fill and send back. It then tests the water for possible contaminants such as lead, Chromium-6, chlorine, fluoride and others and within about 10 days sends back the results. Zerban says the $25 fee covers the testing costs and improvements to the product, such as testing for new contaminants.
Tern Water has been testing the Philly supply and reporting what it considers dangerous levels of contaminants in almost everyone’s water. The results don’t match the Water Department’s, and the ethos of the company, testing water that’s already been tested by the city, has touched a nerve.
The testing is available from Tern Water anywhere in the United States, but Philadelphia, given the company is based here at the co-working space 1776 has been a focus, with about 200 residents paying for tests late last year and early this year. Those tests are what led to the trouble with the PWD. Zerban found 90 percent of all users had at least one risky contaminant, including Chromium-6, the cancer-causing chemical you may have heard about in Erin Brockovich, and high levels of chlorine and fluoride. Homes tested in the same areas showed differing levels of contaminants.
Zerban wrote in a press release in January explaining the results, “Through even these first few months of testing, we’ve confirmed that even good neighborhoods may have bad water.”
He went on to say how they assumed neighborhoods like Rittenhouse Square would have the “best water” but also had contaminants.
It was scary stuff—if you believed the results. And the Water Department didn’t believe them. The PWD heard about Tern after at least two residents who used Zerban’s testing sought its advice and after Tern came out with the press release.
“First of all we do not discriminate or decide where we’re going to send the best water,” McCarty says. “All of our water is the best water. This is striking fear, among other things, among our customers. Ninety percent of all tests had at least one contaminant that is risky? They made up these standards.”
Among the most surprising for them were the levels of chlorine and fluoride. Tern claimed 40 percent of its Philadelphia customers had high levels of fluoride, above 1.5 ppm, and one Tern customer was found by Tern to have 6.7 ppm of fluoride. The Water Department maintains fluoride at about 0.7 ppm, and fluoride isn’t present in pipes or other infrastructure the water passes through. It rarely increases. When the customer contacted PWD, its tests found the fluoride levels to be about 0.7 ppm.
Major increases in chlorine are also unlikely, experts say. If anything, chlorine levels are likely to diminish as water travels through the system. Yet Tern’s tests of its own personnel’s water, revealed on Twitter late last year, showed chlorine measuring 4 ppm in one sample and 7 ppm in another, and the PWD maintains below 4 ppm in its water. Its average is 1.88 ppm.
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Zerban vouches for the accuracy of Tern’s test. The PWD says the results with the chlorine and fluoride alone show Tern can’t be following proper procedures.
“We’ve been astonished with this,” Zerban says. “They’re speaking to the flouride and you have the chlorine as well and we don’t know why it’s high. They’re saying whatever they’re saying, but we are doing more independent tests on our own dime. We’re going out and doing different spots and getting capsules, and we’ll be releasing a more in-depth report through our blogs and social media within the next few months.”
Tern’s ratings also tell customers that traces of some contaminants are dangerous at levels the World Health Organization and the EPA would consider safe.
One certainty is Tern Water’s tests aren’t EPA-accredited. Zerban said as much in an interview. He says Tern’s testing is conducted at the Pennovation Center by him and others with engineering backgrounds using “lab-grade” equipment.
“We are doing more independent tests on our own dime,” says Zerban, who started Tern Water while a Drexel student. “We’re going out and doing different spots and getting capsules, and we’ll be releasing a more in-depth report through our blogs and social media within the next few months.”
He says their testing methods stand out above other in-home tests you could find on Amazon or at hardware stores. Those tests generally just let users know a contaminant could be present by a color change on a strip of paper without calculating the level of the contaminant.
“You could get pieces of paper you put in the water and it goes green,” he says. “We didn’t like this way. There wasn’t a way you could have reliable testing equipment and test for water in people’s homes in an on-demand, convenient fashion.”
But without the absence of EPA accreditation, is Tern’s any better?
Temple University public health professor Heather Murphy, who has years of experience in water testing, wouldn’t recommend anybody served by a municipal water source get private testing. But if anybody does she would recommend an EPA-accredited lab.
“We don’t work for the EPA; we work for the people,” Zerban says. “We want to provide people with the best experience. We’re able to provide them with healthy guidelines, not EPA guidelines.”
In so many ways, Philadelphia needs disruption. The Democratic Machine still wields tremendous power. City Hall was using Lotus Notes until 2012. Leaders still think the only way to cure the city’s problems is to raise taxes and ask questions later. And anybody who figures out a way to speed up the Streets Department’s process enough so awareness cones need not be used deserves a Nobel Prize.
But the Water Department has been guilty of few sins over the years. Despite the difficulty of cleaning up water coming from the filthy Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, its product is routinely praised and lives up to federal standards. There haven’t been major problems with lead either, in part because of PWD efforts to produce an anti-corrosive product less likely to wreak havoc on Philly’s thousands of lead pipes. The Water Department also offers interest-free loans to customers looking to replace lead service lines.
And it actually will test customers’ water at their taps. The process is just a little convoluted. The PWD doesn’t offer testing until after a phone call and a visit from a department employee. Last year, about 315 water tap samples were taken from individual homes.
When Zerban developed Tern Water at Drexel, he garnered considerable hype for the Smart Faucet product. Now that he’s expanded into testing water, the stakes are higher. But maybe Tern and PWD aren’t actually that far apart in their disagreement. After all, an extra check on a service provided by the government is rarely a bad idea. Even the PWD’s McCarty acknowledged that people who truly don’t trust the city government should have options if they want to get their water tested.
But she cautions: Get one at an EPA-accredited lab.Photo: Christopher Irwin via Flickr