UVa Professor Investigates Lead Corrosion in Pipes, Flint Water Crisis

In April 2013, Michigan state treasurer Andy Dillon authorized the city of Flint to switch its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River in an effort to save money. Dillon argued that the switch was necessary in order for Flint to rebuild. In a letter to Flint’s appointed emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, Dillon stated, “this deal will lead to substantial savings for the City over the coming decades, savings that are desperately needed to help with the turnaround of the City of Flint.”

One year later, the city officially began using the Flint River as the town’s water source. Almost immediately, a series of problems emerged with the drinking water, culminating in lead contamination and creating a serious public health hazard.

Two years later, UVa Professor John Scully and his team of students are investigating the major causes that lead to the Flint water crisis. Scully and a number of graduate and undergraduate students spent this past summer looking for scientific answers to the problem.

Photo courtesy University of Virginia Engineering
Photo courtesy University of Virginia Engineering

The team found that switching to the Flint river was not the only money-saving step that the government employed. Water system managers in Flint failed to treat the water with Orthophosphates, a chemical used for lead corrosion-control. Orthophosphates are essential to sustainable water systems because the chemical helps prevent excess lead leaching into neighboring water. Scully and his team found that only a minimal amount of Orthophosphate treatment would have been need to counteract the problem. Their research has revealed indisputable evidence that would counter Dillon’s claim.

Additionally, Scully and his team found that the high levels of Chloride in the Flint River increased the lead release from Flint’s outdated water pipes, representing a much broader issue found throughout cities nationally.

The discovery of the Flint water crisis launched much investigative work into the safety of lead pipes and the issue’s prevalence.

In a widely circulated New York Times article, Michael Wines and John Schwartz revealed astounding facts about lead pipes throughout the country.

“Even purified water often travels to homes through pipes that are in stunning disrepair, potentially open to disease and pollutants. Although Congress banned lead water pipes 30 years ago, between 3.3 million and 10 million older ones remain, primed to leach lead into tap water by forces as simple as jostling during repairs or a change in water chemistry.”

Scully also recognizes how pervasive this problem truly is, but research on the subject has been impeded by a lack of funding.

“The project will likely never end, in that we will continue in some residual or low-level way because we did this in our spare time anyway,” Scully told UVAToday. “It was unfunded… All my students are funded on something else – no one is coming in yet with exclusively dedicated lead corrosion funding.”

Without the necessary funding remedy the issue, lead pipe corrosion will continue to cause problems throughout the United States.



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