Led by Lead

March 26, 2018
The national impact of the Flint, Mich., water crisis four years later

About the author: Lauren Del Ciello is associate editor for WQP. Del Ciello can be reached at [email protected].


On April 25, 2014, the city of Flint, Mich., switched its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River temporarily while it constructed a pipeline to connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority. This action, and the subsequent decision to not treat the Flint River water with corrosion control chemicals, led to a state of emergency as the city faced lead contamination in its municipal drinking water system.

Reflecting four years later, there is a silver lining. The Flint water crisis and the national attention it garnered drew much-needed attention to the crumbling state of U.S. water infrastructure and the outdated laws that surround it, and raised public awareness of water treatment issues.

Culligan donated bottled water to Flint Community Schools Food Service during the Flint water crisis.

Surviving a Water Crisis

For water treatment specialists, the Flint water crisis led to a universal shift in water treatment awareness and education. This shift extends from the consumer’s understanding of water quality problems, up to the state and federal level, where a need has been recognized for stricter standards on the monitoring, treatment and distribution of municipal water. For Culligan of Flint, the crisis provided a rush of business and customer awareness.

“When [the city of Flint] first announced that they would be switching to the Flint River, I had a very boisterous man come in and say he’s not going to drink any of that water and he wanted a water cooler,” said Greg Cornell, general manager of Culligan of Flint. “Then the media got a hold of the story in late December to early January of 2016 and the nation responded.”

For a small business like Cornell’s, the sudden demand was overwhelming. Phone lines were constantly ringing and at one point salesmen were booked two weeks out. Cornell’s business hired more staff and collaborated with nearby Culligan dealerships to meet the rapidly growing need for water coolers and treatment devices. The water treatment community and others across the nation responded, though not always helpfully.

“I would say the strangest thing we heard was a group out of Grand Rapids wanted to donate water to the people in Flint, but they didn’t want to contribute to the plastic bottle issue,” Cornell said. “So they wanted us to fill up a tanker truck with our water and drive around the city and distribute the water to the people directly.”

Culligan corporate provided donations to Flint public schools, and countless other organizations stepped up to provide for the people of Flint during the crisis. Still, Cornell had concerned residents calling the dealership to demand free water.

One obstacle water treatment providers faced during the crisis was a lack of products certified for lead removal at the point of entry (POE). Cornell and his team knew a water softener could remove lead as long as it was in soluble form, but if it was particulate lead it would not be caught by the water softener. On top of that, residents were developing rashes.

“We surmised [the rashes were] probably due to the high level of chlorine, so we would recommend a POE carbon filtration system and then make sure that they use the reverse osmosis to drink the water,” Cornell said.

In the wake of the crisis, residents of Flint and regions across the U.S. are more aware of water quality conditions. Many Flint residents distrust the water quality and even though recent Michigan Department of Environmental Quality lead testing has consistently revealed results below the federal threshold, many continue to shy from consuming tap water in favor of bottled or filtered water.

“Other dealerships that I talk to say that the Flint water crisis has increased their business, and they’re in different states,” Cornell said. “It’s just a matter of everybody; it’s on their mind and they’re concerned. They think about it, so they want to find out what’s in their water.”

Culligan of Flint’s experience with a lack of treatment products certified to remove lead is one issue that must be addressed. Already more treatment options are being developed, such as the ZeroWater filtration system that is NSF certified for lead reduction. However, an outdated lead piping distribution system, along with faulty testing practices remain.

Culligan delivered POU water filtration products to Flint Community Schools to ensure the students had access to safe drinking water.

Call for Action

On the federal level, change in response to the water crisis is underway. The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) incorporated the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which increased funding for lead reduction, public education and lead pipeline replacement. Additionally, WIIN provided increased funding for lead testing in schools, which is becoming an increasingly important issue to state and federal regulators.

Revisions have been proposed to the Lead and Copper Rule on both a federal and state level. Michigan has proposed dropping the state action level for lead in drinking water to 10 ppb, and further dropping it to 5 ppb after four years, well below the current federal standard of 15 ppb.

The current federal Lead and Copper Rule, established in 1991, requires federal action if 10% of the water samples taken test above 15 ppb for lead. The problem with this rule, however, rests in loopholes available when retrieving the samples. Because lead generally does not infiltrate a water system until lead from the distribution system leaches into the water, the testing must be done from the tap at residents’ homes.

“Under the Lead and Copper Rule, you’re not testing the water in every single home,” said Kathleen Fultz, regulatory and government affairs manager for the Water Quality Assn. “You’re creating a list of the highest-risk homes, which is already laid out in the rule, and then you’re testing a select number of those homes.”

The loopholes, Fultz explained, are found in the unknown. What if that person is not home? What should the public water systems do in that case? Municipal water providers can alter lead test results in circumstances such as these by retesting to remove an outlier, or by the practice of pre-flushing.

“You’re flushing the water for a little bit before you take the sample, but that actually can give you a lower testing result of the lead in the drinking water,” Fultz said. “Although the EPA has provided guidance, it’s not strictly called out in the Lead and Copper Rule to make sure that that’s not happening.”

The U.S. EPA planned to unveil revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule by January 2018, but announced in December 2017 that it would delay revisions to gather input from state and local officials. Since then, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has hosted meetings seeking input on potential revisions from local and state officials, as well as the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, as reported by The Washington Examiner. EPA plans to release a revised rule in August 2018.

Lead contamination will continue to be a risk until all lead service lines are replaced. The state of Michigan has spearheaded the removal of lead service lines. The city of Flint has agreed to replace 18,000 lead service lines by January 2020. In July 2017 the city had replaced 2,181 of these lines, according to The Detroit News.

Other Michigan cities, such as Grand Rapids and Lansing, are following suit and replacing lead service lines. Grand Rapids is even covering the expenses of replacing pipes on privately owned land and eliminating the practice of partial lead service line replacement. Lansing, the state’s capitol, has successfully replaced all lead lines as part of an anti-lead crusade that began in 2004 under Sen. Virg Bernero, now the city’s mayor. Efforts such as these, as well as collaborations between public officials and water treatment specialists, are advancing the cause of lead service pipe removal and replacement.

“You’re seeing so much collaboration in terms of states looking at what other states are doing,” Fultz said. “Communities sharing how they’re combating lead and how they’re trying to find financial means in order to make those lead service line replacements.”

Field kits helps water treatment providers determine the lead concentration of water samples. The results can help determine treatment options or indicate wheather additional testing is needed.

Beyond Lead

As the nation faces other emerging contaminants in the form of per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) and GenX, consumer awareness and stricter drinking water standards are more important than ever. Still recovering from the Flint water crisis, some Michigan communities have been plagued with water quality issues associated with PFAS. Townships have been impacted by pollution from Wolverine World Wide and firefighting foam found near the Camp Grayling military base. Most recently, PFAS has been found in Lake Huron drinking water systems.

GenX, another emerging contaminant ironically developed as the replacement to PFAS, has been found in North Carolina communities.

The health effects of these emerging contaminants are still largely unknown, so it is important to take the lessons of Flint’s lead contamination to other communities.

“[Perfluorooctanoic acid has] definitely received a lot more of a national profile in terms of getting coverage and I think a lot of that is because the lead in drinking water issue reached that national level,” Fultz said. “Now the conversation is widening to other issues with drinking water.”

The Flint water crisis has brought national attention to the country’s outdated water infrastructure and initiated a conversation between consumers, treatment specialists, and legislators on how to best address water quality concerns. The wheels are in motion to revise water quality standards and improve infrastructure, but it is up to water treatment specialists to continue the conversation through education and to keep these issues on the public’s mind.

WQA representatives brought . bottled water and lead contamination education to a Flint community senior center.

Water Quality Assn. members meet with Congress for its annual DC Fly-In Day. Members urged Congress to reach out when reviewing legislation for drinking water and contact the association when water issues arise in their states.

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