Lessons From the Flint, MI Water Crisis: A Corrosive Issue

June 1, 2016

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.

To continue reading the full article check out the May edition of Water Efficiency, please click here. You may need to log-in or subscribe to our magazine.
About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

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

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