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The Path from Flint

By:  David B. LaFrance 

“The tragedy in this Michigan city demonstrates the need for vigilance in protecting families from lead in drinking water. There will be no better moment to develop workable solutions for getting the heavy metal out, protecting public health, and renewing faith in this basic resource.”

It is difficult to imagine what it has been like to live in Flint, Michigan, for the last two years. Confidence in the city’s drinking water, a critical resource for one’s daily existence, was shattered, and it will likely be years before citizens will fully trust the city, state regulators, or federal policymakers. The discovery of high levels of lead in homes throughout Flint — and the series of decisions that led to it — is a reminder that the first job of every water professional is to protect the families we serve.

As the city slowly recovers, there is good news in the broad battle against lead in drinking water. Even before Flint was in national headlines, the Environmental Protection Agency was in the process of revising the national regulation that addresses lead in drinking water. Te Lead and Copper Rule, first adopted in 1991, is widely considered one of the most complex regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. With a proposed rule revision anticipated in 2017, an advisory council representing a diverse set of stakeholders has provided EPA with recommendations that strengthen consumer protections today while working for a future where sources of lead exposure are removed altogether.

Water professionals recognize lead’s health impacts and know that traces of the heavy metal in water, like lead in paint and dust, contribute to a cumulative environmental exposure that can cause severe and long-lasting harm. For decades, more than 50,000 U.S. drinking water systems have worked diligently to protect Americans from lead in the water we drink. By 2014, virtually all systems serving more than 50,000 people were actively adjusting water chemistry to control corrosion and thereby reduce the risk of lead in service lines and home plumbing from dissolving into water and ending up at the tap.

In April 2014, Flint stopped purchasing treated water from the city of Detroit that included corrosion control adjustments. At this point, Flint turned to the Flint River as its supply and cleaned that water in its own treatment plant, constructed in 1952. The city’s change in water source without adequate consideration of potential changes in source-water chemistry — and without continuing corrosion control at the Flint water treatment plant — resulted in elevated lead levels at customers’ taps. In December 2015, Flint declared a state of emergency. By January 2016, lead contamination in Flint dominated national headlines, sparking a demand for action to secure high-quality drinking water for all Americans.

Residential lead service lines represent a large source of lead that comes into contact with drinking water. Service lines are the pipes that connect individual homes to the water mains in the street. In the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s, lead was often used for service lines two inches in diameter or smaller. Te practice fell out of favor in some communities in the early 20th century but continued in other locales until 1986, when lead pipe was banned nationally. Currently, an estimated 6.1 million lead service lines remain across the United States, serving approximately 7 percent of the population. Of the 56,000 homes and businesses in Flint, 8,000 may have lead service lines.

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David B. LaFrance is chief executive offcer of the American Water Works Association. AWWA is the world’s largest and oldest association of water professionals, with more than 50,000 members worldwide.