The Flint, Michigan water crisis has brought the safety of our tap water into national conversation. After a switch in the water source, residents of Flint were unknowingly exposed to contaminated tap water for months before government officials admitted that the problem existed. This contaminated tap water contained dangerous levels of lead, leading to a public health crisis likely to affect Flint, Michigan for years to come. The tragedy in Flint serves as an example of the dangers of lead in tap water.
How lead can contaminate tap water
In an effort to save money, the city of Flint decided to switch its water system from relying on the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to using the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). During the time necessary to build a pipeline to connect to the KWA, the city started relying on the Flint River for its water source starting in April of 2014. This decision to use water from the Flint River directly resulted in Flint’s public water crisis.
In the early 20th century, when Flint’s water lines were first installed, lead was commonly used as the material for these pipes. Lead was also used as a material in soldering and in many fixtures. In most cases, lead plumbing can be used safely, as long as some protective measures are taken to prevent the lead from leaching from the pipes or fixtures and into the water supply. Sadly, when officials in Flint switched from using water from the DWSD to water from the Flint River, they took no such precautions. The water in the Flint River contained significantly less phosphate, which helps make water less corrosive, than water from the DWSD. After the tragedy in Flint, researchers from Virginia Tech tested the water and found that pipes placed in it leached 16 times as much lead as pipes placed in water treated by the DWSD. Because lead pipes and fixtures are not unique to Flint, Michigan, every water treatment company should be mindful of ways to reduce the corrosiveness of tap water. In fact, some members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend replacing these lead fixtures altogether.
Health effects of lead in tap water
The health effects of lead in tap water can be severe. The EPA’s maximum contaminant level goal for lead is zero, because it can have a toxic effect at even low levels. Lead exposure in adults can lead to heart, kidney, and even reproductive problems. Health effects can be even more serious in children and pregnant women. In children, lead exposure can lead to behavioral and intellectual problems, anemia, and in very serious instances of exposure, even seizures or death. Sadly, the effects of lead poisoning are cumulative and lead can build up in the body over time.
In Flint, Michigan, the long term effects of the water crisis remain to be seen. One pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint noticed that the number of children experiencing lead poisoning doubled after the crisis. Since many of the symptoms of lead poisoning, such as growth problems or reduced IQ, may take time to be apparent, the tragedy in Flint will likely have repercussions for years to come.
The crisis in Flint serves as a warning about the dangers of lead in tap water. Some of the conditions that lead to this tragedy, like outdated lead plumbing or a desire to cut costs, are in no way unique to Flint. Public outcry and a demand for safer water lead to change in Flint, showing the importance of being aware of the safety of your own tap water.