How to prevent another Flint

Environment | Widespread lead poisoning from residential plumbing is not inevitable, one expert says
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 4/19/16, 11:40 am

In hearings about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., several lawmakers suggested the city could be the tip of an iceberg of disintegrating residential water-distribution systems in the United States.

Last year, when Flint’s emergency managers decided to switch the source of the city’s drinking water to the highly corrosive Flint River without the required anti-corrosion treatment, the lead in the service lines of many older, low-income Flint homes leached into the drinking water, precipitating a major health crisis. Service lines are the length of half-inch pipe connecting homes to the city water mains in the street, and many of them are made of lead.

But science, along with health and safety best practices, suggests what’s occurring in Flint is unlikely to happen elsewhere.

Water and lead have a long shared history. The Romans and other ancient cultures used lead pipes for supplying drinking water because lead was easy to form and didn’t deteriorate when buried underground. The chemical symbol for lead is Pb, from the Latin word “plumbum,” meaning “waterworks,” from which we derive our modern word “plumbing.”

The ancients knew exposure to lead in water could cause lead poisoning, but the United States didn’t begin serious efforts to ban the use of lead as a plumbing material until after World War II. There are still older U.S. homes with lead pipes. Even the solder used to connect steel or copper pipes in homes built prior to 1980 could be lead-based, and brass plumbing fixtures in older homes can contain a certain amount of lead.

“What happened in Flint was a variety of pressures from political, financial, regulatory, limited resources, a variety of factors all coming together … in a perfect storm of human factors,” said Gary Burlingame, laboratory director at the Philadelphia Water Utility and a water quality expert for more than 35 years. He said the Flint case should not cause people to conclude the drinking water infrastructure in the U.S. is crumbling.

“We know how to avoid Flint. We know the chemistry of lead, and we know all the science and engineering to avoid something like Flint from happening,” Burlingame said.

There are two ways to tell if lead is present in residential water: a laboratory water test or a home test kit for the service pipe and solder. Lead can leach out of the pipe and dissolve into the water as a result of corrosion, or it can get deposited in the mineral scales that often coat the inside of decades-old lead pipes.

Current laws do not require utilities to replace lead service lines unless they detect certain levels of lead in the water, Burlingame said. Last year, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, a group of 15 national stakeholders including regulators, utilities, environmental organizations, and public health officials, pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to update the regulation. 

“We came to bat and we said, this can’t be, we can’t go another 30 years with keeping lead service lines in place. We have to set a long-term goal to get these lead service lines out,” Burlingame said. “So the EPA is now rewriting the regulation.”

Implementing lead service line removal programs will be both complicated and expensive because ownership of service lines varies in many places between the homeowner and the city. Burlingame believes the revised regulations will address the scientific and engineering problems raised by the Flint crisis. But the human factor—poor decisions and a failure to implement regulations—could still lead to something like Flint happening in another American city, he said.

Listen to Michael Cochrane’s report about the risks of lead plumbing on The World and Everything in It.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

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  • doc327hank
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:23 pm

    True, the Royal "We" know how to avoid Flint.  But the guys that Flint paid to do the design work, either slept though that class covered in  Drinking Water 101 (in the later half of the course), or didn't take the entire course.  There are thousands of water professionals in the US who would not have made this rookie mistake.  No, even rookies who had paid attention would not have made this maistake.

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