The ongoing crisis over lead-contaminated drinking in Flint, Michigan has shocked many Americans. In April 2014 the city switched its drinking water source from the City of Detroit’s system to the Flint river as a cost-saving measure. Almost immediately, residents started complaining that the water looked, smelled and tasted strange, but state officials insisted that it was safe to drink. Tests by academic researchers soon showed that the water was highly corrosive, and was leaching dangerous levels of lead from Flint homes’ aging pipes. This crisis has brought attention to additional states, such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, facing lead contamination concerns.
This ongoing disaster offers many lessons about government, risk and public health. It also shows how directly relevant science is to our daily lives, and the right and wrong ways to think about exposure to environmental hazards.
Unit 6 of The Habitable Planet, “Risk, Exposure, and Health,” describes the process that scientists and health experts use to measure potential exposure to hazards in our environment and assess whether they are dangerous. In Flint, state regulators did not follow this process. Rather, they contended for months that there was nothing dangerously wrong with water from the Flint River.
But when residents turned to a team of engineering professors and students from Virginia Tech University (whose leader, Marc Edwards, was a prominent expert on drinking water contamination), these researchers came to a very different answer. First, they predicted that Flint River water would be corrosive, based on their knowledge that it was heavily treated with chlorine to reduce contaminants. Second, they confirmed this hypothesis by testing Flint River water in their lab. Third, they theorized that because state regulators had decided to use the river water without adding anti-corrosive chemicals (a standard water treatment step), it was likely to leach lead from old pipes and lead pipe solder in many Flint homes. Fourth, they confirmed this by testing tap water samples collected by Flint residents.
Now Flint residents are receiving bottled water, while state officials debate options for replacing the city’s lead pipes. Access to safe drinking water is also an urgent problem is many other cities worldwide: see unit 8 of The Habitable Planet, “Water Resources.” In addition to pollution, expanding agriculture, damming, and wasteful use are straining water supplies in many places, and global climate change is altering hydrological cycles. Watch this site for information from the United Nations about World Water Day on March 22, which will focus this year on “Water and Jobs.”
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