Don't be Mis-Lead about the Flint Water Crisis

If you have watched any news within the last months, you have undoubtedly seen coverage on Flint, Michigan and the water crisis. From politics to pop culture, everyone has an opinion and wants to point a finger. On the surface, we see the legal drama unfolding, but we want to take a little deeper look. The water quality in flint was dangerous – that’s a fact. From a water purification point of view, how did it get to this point and how could it have been prevented? We take a look at those questions:

What Went Wrong

If your news outlet gave you the quick and easy report about the crisis, you probably heard that lead was the basis for all of the water contamination. High levels of lead in the water can cause lead poisoning, as well as many other life altering/threatening diseases. Geographically, Flint is located in one of the safest locations for water purity due to its connection to Lake Huron, which was formed by a 10,000 year old glacier that is still fed by pure underground springs.

So, when did everything go wrong? The City of Flint changed their source water to the Flint river in an effort to save money for everyone, but the lack of attention to detail that followed would be the devastating cost. The Flint river had higher amounts of iron in the water than the original source of Lake Huron. In order to combat this issue, the water municipality began adding Ferric Chloride into the water to help oxidize the iron molecules out in the filtering process. Here we find the start of the Flint water crisis. The municipality did not invest any money to filter the water after they added the Ferric Chloride. As a harsh acid, Ferric Chloride began to eat away at the old lead pipes, shedding countless metals into the water system. As the acid continued to oxidize the iron molecules, the iron became visible and families/business in the area received red-tinged water coming out of faucets throughout the city.

The most eye-opening fact of this entire disaster is the prevention that never happened. For $100 dollars a day, the administration could have used a government required anti-corrosive additive that helps to seal the lead into the pipe. The $9000 saved by not moving forward with the additive at the first sign of acidic erosion will now cost the state up to $1.5 billion to correct the debacle.

Water Chemistry Improvement

The water in Flint is on the mend. Researchers and water chemistry experts have all descended on the city to help regain a safe source. As of the beginning of April, the update from Flint Water Study showed the following:

  1. Flint is not yet meeting the 90 percentile lead action level.

The EPA required level of 90% action level is 15 ppb, but in March, the random sample of 174 homes saw a reading of 23 ppb. On top of that, the water lead is highly variable and can be different in each sample. One researcher described the sampling as, “Water Russian roulette.”         

  1. Lead levels are lower now than in August 2015.

This improvement is indicated in both discrete levels of lead and by the percentage of water lead samples above 15 ppb.

  1. Iron levels are decreasing.

Flint has initiated corrosion control that is beginning to improve the levels of metals that flow into the water from the older piping. The iron standard has dropped from 7% to 4% by the EPA’s standard.

  1. To speed up recovery, residents will need to use more water.

It is no surprise that Flint residents have cut back on water usage in all aspects of their lives. A recent survey saw that homes were using only 20%-45% of the monthly volume considered typical for U.S. homes. To see a full recovery though, the pipes need to be consistently used, as the additives and purification efforts must be dispersed.

What’s Next?

As families across the nation followed the Flint crisis unfold from the televisions and phones, a conversation surrounding water health and levels has started. Old lead pipes crawl throughout the ground all around U.S. Cities, transporting the water we all drink and use daily.

It’s necessary to be informed. If your water is supplied by a well, you are the sole person responsible for monitoring its quality. Any other source fed through a city system is the responsibility of the city to follow through with its testing procedures. Either way, regular tests and staying up to date with city water procedures is essential.