This past April 25th marked six years since the city of Flint, Michigan, completed the switch of its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Spurred by financial emergencies and a need to reduce the high costs of sourcing water from Detroit, the switch in 2014 would initiate one of the most troubling public health crises in U.S. history.
Over the next year and a half, outcries ramped up among numerous residents, businesses and scientists who discovered the water in Flint had become completely unacceptable, with lead levels in one home (104 parts per billion, or ppb) detected to be seven times greater than the acceptable limit set by the U.S. EPA (15 ppb) at the time. At least 12 people died as a result of the lead poisoning from tainted water.
Today, water quality in most areas of Flint are considered to be acceptable to consume, but most of the city’s population is still afraid to drink it. More than 25,000 service lines have been inspected and about 85 percent replaced, although work has since been put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why Was Flint’s Water So Dangerous?
Some of the water service lines in the city were installed in the early 20th century and made of lead, a common practice at the time. Lead from pipelines can leach into the water flowing through them. While exposure to lead has decreased dramatically in recent decades, no level of lead is considered to be completely safe for humans. Flint had been sourcing its water since 1967 from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, who treated the water well enough that any lead leached from Flint’s pipes were considered to be at levels low enough to be acceptable.
The switch to the Flint River as a source of water was meant to be temporary while the local water authority constructed a new pipeline to Genesee County (where Flint is located) from Lake Huron. But a poor treatment approach of the river water (which already in itself was naturally high in corrosive chloride) led to a significant increase in pipeline corrosion, and in turn caused lead levels in the city’s water to spike.
From the EPA’s website:
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur with an adequate margin of safety. These non-enforceable health goals, based solely on possible health risks, are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs). EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.
Approaches to Treating Lead in Water
Filtration methods such as reverse osmosis, distillation and carbon filters can be utilized in systems specifically designed to remove lead from drinking water. AdEdge adsorption treatment methods are also proven to be effective in removing heavy metals like lead from water systems.
As of March 20, 2020, 9,554 of the lead service lines in Flint have been replaced, according to the city.
(Image by lindaparton from Adobe Stock)