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Water Quality Risk Assessment and Management

Posted by Karen Riser on August 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Background on the Flint Water Crisis

In 2014, the City of Flint, Michigan, took a cost-saving measure by switching its water supply from the City of Detroit—which got water from Lake Huron—to Flint River. During this change, Flint water officials did not take the required steps to manage the water chemistry of the Flint River, which has more corrosive water than Lake Huron. The untreated corrosion caused the aging pipes in Flint homes to leach lead into the tap water, exposing residents to a high level of lead over time. This likely would not have happened if the water supply was properly treated with an anti-corrosion agent. In October, 2015, the city of Flint went back to using water from Detroit, but there was an ongoing concern that home pipes were still leaching lead into the tap water.

Factors That Determine Lead Levels in the Water Supply

Lead enters drinking water primarily through private plumbing materials inside the home, such as pipes and fixtures that contain lead. The following factors determine the extent to which lead enters water in homes:

  1. Acidity and alkalinity of the water
  2. Types of minerals in the water
  3. Amount of lead the water comes into contact with
  4. Temperature of the water
  5. Amount of wear on the pipes
  6. How long the water has been in the pipes
  7. Presence of coating inside the plumbing material

Measures to Ensure High-Quality Drinking Water

The US enjoys one of the most reliable and safe supplies of drinking water, due in part to legislation. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and its subsequent amendments regulated public water systems for the first time ever, including the pace of regulation, protecting ground water sources, and notifying the public of contamination.

Currently, there are over 170,000 public water systems providing drinking water to most Americans in the US. Every water utility system is required to produce a consumer confidence report annually by July 1, disclosing testing for levels of lead and other potentially harmful materials in the drinking water. 

Steps Customers Can Take to Ensure Safe Drinking Water

Customers can affect the safety of their water at an individual level. Houses built before 1986 more than likely have lead pipes and fixtures, so those living in such homes should learn about how water is coming into their residences and what types of pipes and fixtures they have. They can have pipes and fixtures tested for lead for $20–$100, depending on how much piping they have. More information can be found from sources such as the Safe Drinking Water Hotline and state and federal water utility websites.