Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech was analyzing water samples sent to him by a Flint, MI, water customer, done through a “very rigorous” sampling protocol that he had directed. “I was in total disbelief,” he says.

“It was the worst lead in water I’d seen in 25 years,” says Edwards, who teaches at Virginia Tech’s Environmental and Water Resources Engineering program in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

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“Even after 25 minutes of running the water, flushing out the lead from her pipes, she had more than 500 parts per billion lead,” he says. “Many samples were over hazardous waste levels. Some samples had 13,000 parts per billion [ppb]. The EPA standard is 15 ppb, so that means she’s nearly 1,000 times over the maximum level and 1,300 times over the World Health Organization standard levels of 10 parts per billion. This is very serious.” Edwards says a single glass of the water could raise a child’s blood lead from zero up to about 45 micrograms per deciliter, well beyond the lead poisoning standard.

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According to the World Health Organization, “lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient [IQ], behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span, increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity, and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”

According to an American Water Works Association (AWWA) document on lead, adults with kidney problems and high blood pressure can be affected by low levels of lead more than healthy adults. Lead is stored in the bones, and it can be released later in life. During pregnancy, the fetus receives lead from the mother’s bones, which may affect brain development.

The Flint crisis of lead in its potable water supply is the result of what Edwards calls “the perfect storm—a confluence of factors including out-of-control corrosion of its potable water distribution system” which he says undermines water affordability for residents, financial viability of the city government, water aesthetics, hygiene, and sanitation. As a result, Flint has become the poster child for the water utility industry on what went wrong and a springboard to actions that need to be taken at each US utility to avoid a similar catastrophe.


By now, the story has become familiar industrywide. In April 2014, state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley made a decision based on financial reasons to switch from relying on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s potable water from the Detroit River and LakeHuron—upon which it had relied for years—to the corrosive Flint River as a potable water source. Sourcing the Flint River was intended to be temporary until a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, which delivers water from Lake Huron, was finished.

It would soon be revealed that the proper corrosion control was not in place to deal with the new water source.

Edwards points out that Flint River water has about eight times more chloride (Cl–) in it than Detroit water. “Chloride is generally considered to be very corrosive to iron,” he notes. “For instance, chloride present in road salts applied in the winter causes iron in cars and bridges to rust. Detroit also adds a corrosion inhibitor chemical—orthophosphate—to their water that helps to reduce corrosion of metals such as iron and lead. So, current Flint water is not only more corrosive, but there is also no corrosion inhibitor present.

“Corrosion control would have cost $100 a day,” he adds. “Yet in less than two years, they’ve literally poisoned hundreds of children and done tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the pipe system.”

Edwards calls lead pipes “a time bomb in the ground” and an undetermined amount of lead pipe conveying potable water throughout the United States still exists. “As long as they behave themselves, they don’t hurt people very much, but the second that you forget about them or don’t take the health risks seriously, as occurred in Flint, they rise up and bite a whole new generation of children,” points out Edwards. Severe chemical and biological health risks as well as bacteria problems are “amongst the most important health problems arising in modern potable water systems,” says Edwards.

“What you had was a city full of lead pipes and corrosive water and unfortunately, you also had a state government oversight agency that had a massive conflict of interest because the state was effectively running the system under the emergency manager law and once they screwed it up, they owned the problem,” says Edwards, adding that “to some extent, that conflict of interest exists at water utilities all around the country.” About half of the homes in Flint are served by lead service lines, says Edwards.

“Federal law requires you have a plan to keep lead on the pipes and out of the water,” he says, adding that from April 2014 to the time Flint switched back to Detroit water, it was the only US city that had no plan for corrosion control of lead. “Not even an inadequate plan, which is the case that applies to many US water utilities,” he contends.

Soon after the water source switch, Flint water customers reported taste and odor issues as well as skin problems. Some children were missing school as a result of the health consequences. Tests for total coliform resulted in multiple boil water issues throughout the summer.

The water became more corrosive, causing lead to leach into water at the tap. An increase in lead levels in children ensued. The US Center for Disease Control states that boiling the water does not remove the lead and can increase its concentration.

In the beginning of the crisis, government authorities insisted there was no problem with the water supply and continued to encourage residents to drink the water, says Edwards. But several Flint families were not convinced and had the water tested by the city, an EPA water expert, and by Edwards and his Virginia Tech team.

The mounting evidence—including high lead levels in blood found by a local pediatrician—was picked up and carried by the media, attracting public attention and outrage, from local citizens to celebrities. Among the first was filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore, who called upon the US Attorney General to prosecute and arrest Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his handling of the Flint water crisis.

A lead-contaminated water sample from a Flint, MI, home

A political fall-out ensued, with numerous resignations, calls for congressional hearings, and the state of Michigan facing multiple class-action lawsuits. Following Flint and Michigan’s own declarations of emergencies, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency on January 16, making millions of dollars in federal aid available. National Guard and state workers began distributing bottled water and filters to residents.

Governor Snyder announced plans to switch Flint back to the Detroit system—which occurred on October 16—until pipe infrastructure to Lake Huron is completed. His action plan also included free water testing, free water filters, and accelerating corrosion controls in the drinking water system.

Plumbing Manufacturers International members have donated hundreds of faucets and other plumbing supplies to be installed in more than 1,500 homes by a team of 470 plumbers from local unions of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, along with water filters.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has been designated the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating federal government response and recovery efforts, in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the Small Business Administration; EPA; and the Departments of Education, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development.

In a January 19 statement, AWWA CEO David LaFrance affirmed the near-term focus should remain on “assuring safe and affordable water service to the people of Flint.” Beyond that, there are industry lessons to be learned from the crisis, points out LaFrance. The primary lesson: the complexity of water chemistry.

Steve Via, AWWA’s regulatory affairs manager, says the critical point in the timeline on Flint’s crisis is the water source switch. Systems need to be forward-thinking about changes in water sources or treatment, especially as it relates to corrosion control, points out Via, adding there is a potential “to run into unintended consequences” such as those that have manifested themselves in Flint.

LaFrance emphasizes that water utilities must be alert to potential issues resulting from water source or water treatment changes and have plans in place to address them. “Looking at your infrastructure needs as a utility, it’s not simply about producing and moving water—it’s about assuring the quality as you go,” he says. “As you prioritize improvements to infrastructure, you have to keep quality in mind.”

Edwards concurs, cautioning water utilities to not short-change on monitoring “and to take this issue very, very seriously. We have to do a much better job of controlling corrosion of these assets,” he says. “This is the most expensive environmental engineering problem in the country. It’s not commonly understood what an amazing return on investment corrosion control provides. The second you forget that, you’re going to pay a big price. The vast majority of water utilities could do a much better job with their corrosion control. We simply have not invested in the research and in the engineering so that we have the knowledge on how to do better.”

LaFrance says affordability will become a significant issue as the nation moves to renew its aging water infrastructure. According to AWWA’s 2012 Buried No Longer report, it will cost more than $1 trillion over 25 years to repair and expand the US drinking water infrastructure. That expense will largely be borne by water customers and does not include the cost of removing lead service lines on private property, he adds.

LaFrance echoes the industry argument that water service is priced well below its value while acknowledging there are still families that struggle to meet essential needs. Mitigating the challenge may take a collaborative effort between utilities and customers to remove lead service lines, with opportunities to expand existing government assistance programs, says LaFrance.

The importance of public communications about lead risks is another critical lesson learned from Flint’s experience, says LaFrance.

“Water utility customers should know how to determine if they have lead service lines, the benefits of removing lead service lines, and the steps to protect themselves and their families from lead exposure,” he adds.

Via points out utilities should be proactive in communications in contrast to “being in a situation where it’s a crisis and everyone is concerned.” At that point, communication then becomes a matter of educating customers on dealing with a crisis, he adds. AWWA has a number of resources to assist water utilities in the effort. It offers the document Communicating About Lead Service Lines: A Guide for Water Systems Addressing Service Line Repair and Replacement as well as consumer-related information on


While Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water supply in October, it may take some time before the lead situation is fully controlled, according to the AWWA.

In late 2015, Edwards traveled to Flint as part of a 17-person team addressing problems with severe iron and lead corrosion found in Flint city water. The Flint Water Study Team includes Edwards and professors Amy Pruden and Joe Falkinham of the Department of Biological Sciences within the Virginia Tech College of Science, and other Virginia Tech researchers and students from the US, India, and China.

The trip was part of a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded $50,000 one-year study into Flint’s water distribution system corrosion problems. The NSF gives Rapid Response Grants for “proposals having a severe urgency, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”

Flint returned 277 sample kits to Virginia Tech out of 300 delivered for a 90% return rate. The results indicated high levels of lead even in relatively low-risk homes. The results were at odds with reports of government authorities. Edwards tried unsuccessfully to get blood lead data from the state in early September.

“Privately, they would not give me the blood lead data so I could see if there was a problem in Flint’s children, but publicly they were saying there was no problem,” contends Edwards.

About that time, Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, was also stunned at her own findings of blood lead data and also having to defend herself against criticism of her scientific approach. “She saw a scary increase in childhood lead poisoning and it was concentrated in zip codes where we found the highest lead in water,” says Edwards. “We did Freedom of Information requests to show in the neighborhoods with the highest lead in water the incidents of childhood lead poisoning increased to one in 10 children,” says Edwards. “When the state saw that in their own data, they admitted there was a big problem and at that point, everyone was given filters and health emergencies were declared.”

Governor Snyder appointed a task force that “ripped apart the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality completely,” points out Edwards.

On Oct. 19, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) director Dan Wyant issued a statement saying, “It recently has become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the City of Flint—staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not. The water testing steps followed would have been correct for a city less than 50,000 people, but not for a city of nearly 100,000.”

“As the state recognized there could be a health threat to Flint residents, we took appropriate steps,” he adds. “We are now embarked on an unprecedented effort to safeguard Flint residents and families with near-term, intermediate, and long-term actions to protect and educate city residents.” Wyant conceded the “issue in MDEQ is experience and protocol with respect to corrosion control.”

Soon after, Wyant submitted his resignation as did another MDEQ employee. In mid-November, Howard Croft, Flint’s director of public works, resigned. On February 1, EPA’s Region 5 (Midwest) Administrator, Susan Hedman, resigned following criticism that the federal agency did not act soon enough to bring the lead problem to light following its own Lead and Copper Rule expert’s concerns. Hedman publicly stated there had been an internal tug-of-war between MDEQ and EPA on interpreting the rule.

In November, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling—who initially testified to the safety of the drinking water by drinking it himself on local television and then later requested state funds to replace water service lines with lead or lead solder and for the city to develop a corrosion control plan to be finished by the end of the year—would lose his re-election bid to Karen Weaver.

Weaver has stated that the health consequences will lead to a greater need for services in special education, mental health, and juvenile justice. Governor Snyder apologized to the citizens of Flint and then sent $28 million to the city for supplies, medical care, and infrastructure upgrades. A number of class action lawsuits from the local to state level were filed. Investigations were opened by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan and the Michigan Attorney General’s office.

The Virginia Tech team of engineers and scientists not only concluded that Flint’s water had serious lead contamination, but also had bacterial problems, such as Legionella. After the water source switch, there was a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease and 10 resulting deaths, with Edwards hypothesizing the problems could have been created from the Flint River water source, lack of corrosion control, and large buildings.

Over his career, Edwards has specialized in problems that occur in consumers’ home plumbing, including leaks in plastic and metal plumbing systems, hot water heater design, opportunistic pathogens, and lead in water. He’s also worked with water utilities on problems in the main distribution systems from concrete to iron corrosion to arsenic treatment.

“Our group is focused on the problems that occur after the water has passed onto the property line to building owners or consumers,” says Edwards, adding that while such problems traditionally been considered the property owner’s responsibility, EPA’s 1991 Lead and Copper rule changed regulations that to that point only protected the quality of water up to the property line. The rule meant that controlling lead in drinking water became a shared responsibility that not only included the property owner, but also the water company’s lead service lines through which the water is conveyed.

The Lead and Copper rule has undergone several revisions since 1991, when the agency published it to minimize lead and copper in drinking water. The rule replaced the previous standard of 50 ppb, measured at the entry point to the distribution system. The rule established a maximum contaminant level goal of zero for lead in drinking water and a treatment technique to reduce corrosion of lead and copper within the distribution system.

“If water is non-corrosive, it tends to keep lead on the pipes and you can have good water even if you have pure lead pipes and lead in your home plumbing,” points out Edwards.

According to, the website of Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI), the history of lead pipes goes back thousands of years to the first plumbing systems, which are named for the word “lead” in Latin, plumbum. Lead piping was once considered the gold standard, used for its unique ability to resist pinhole leaks, while being pliable enough to form shapes that deliver water most efficiently, notes PMI.

Today, the main contributor of trace elements of lead in the water supply is found in aging infrastructures, including pipe and plumbing system components. According to PMI, nearly all homes built before the 1980s still have lead solder connecting copper pipes, and some major US cities still have 100% lead piping bringing water from the utilities to homes and businesses.

According to PMI, the dissolved oxygen in the water combines with the metal at the surface (copper, zinc, or lead) to form a metal oxide. This oxidation layer naturally develops through the decades to coat lead piping. When water conditions require it, water utilities also add lime or orthophosphates as a further barrier to prevent lead from getting into drinking water. When water chemistry is carefully controlled, it prevents dangerous levels of lead from entering the drinking water system from the pipes.

The historical context for what happened in Flint also is outlined in the book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster by Werner Troesken, which examines the public health implications from 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems, points out Edwards.

“He demonstrates not only in the US, but also in Europe how people would drink water from these pipes, got deathly sick, and figured out that lead pipes were the problem,” he adds. “There would be a lot of information in the newspaper and someone would think about can we sue the government to fix this. You can’t—it’s sovereign immunity. Then the problem gets forgotten and goes through a cycle over and over again.”

What happened in Flint has the potential to happen elsewhere in the US, points out Edwards. Many older US cities, including Washington DC, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Detroit, have lead pipes in their water distribution system or lead-bearing plumbing inside homes, point out Virginia Tech researchers.

Flint’s crisis comes as EPA prepares to revise the Lead and Copper rule, with the proposal likely final in 2017, according to the AWWA. The association reports EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council has already recommended that revisions include a mandate that all systems implement a strategic plan for the complete removal of lead service lines with responsibility for replacement shared between the utility and its customers.

The damage to Flint’s children is irreversible, points out Edwards, adding that with improved nutrition and care, “you can ameliorate the harm of lead exposure.” The damage to the city’s pipes also is significant and Edwards says it will take millions of dollars for the city and residents to replace Flint’s drinking water infrastructure.

Yet Flint residents have among the highest water bills in the country—a bill can run as high as $175 a month, says Edwards. That’s against the backdrop of homes selling for $10,000, if they are selling at all. According to, the median listing price for a home in Flint earlier this year was $30,950. Market trends show home sales plummeting in the last year. While some residents have left, others cannot afford to.

That leaves the residents who remain having to help foot the bill for mitigating a problem they did not create, points out Edwards. Some “back of the envelope” calculations suggest that water bills will have to increase by about 30% to keep up mitigating pipe failures that are going to occur, says Edwards.

“Not only were they paying the highest rate in the country, a lot of people couldn’t drink it or bathe in it without getting rashes or complaining of other problems and they had to buy bottled water to drink and bathe in,” he says. “The state owns that problem because the city and its residents had no say in this decision to not use corrosion control.”

Even though the mayor was voted out of office and the utility director resigned, “these people had nothing to do with this problem,” says Edwards. “From my perspective, the only thing they could be criticized for is that they trusted EPA and the MDEQ too much,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you trust them? It’s their job to do the right thing and protect Flint’s children. There is no obvious profit motive for them to poison kids. But that’s what happened.”

Edwards concedes that at times, the story of the Flint water crisis has been “in some ways, unbelievable”.

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About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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