Near the end of a press conference on the Flint water crisis, one reporter repeatedly asked Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder why the lead pipes that have been poisoning the town weren’t going to be replaced as soon as possible.
The answer, the governor explained, is that Flint is using the same process that drinking water utilities across the United States use to minimize the risk of lead poisoning: They add chemicals to the water that create a protective barrier on the inside of the pipes and prevent them from corroding. It’s a process the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required since 1991.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has since announced that the city will replace lead pipes, starting with the homes of small children and pregnant women.
Even before news of Flint’s water crisis came to light, public health advocates and water utilities have increasingly questioned the decades-old approach. That’s because research shows that any exposure to lead can be dangerous, particularly to pregnant women and children. It can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys, and can cause lifelong developmental problems.
That risk and the Flint water crisis has led an influential group advising the EPA to suggest making the removal of all lead service lines a national priority–something only a few cities have done. “To truly solve the problem of exposure to lead in drinking water, [we] concluded that lead-bearing materials should be removed from contact with drinking water to the greatest degree possible, while minimizing the risk of exposure in the meantime,” wrote the EPA National Drinking Water Advisory Committee Working Group.
Replacing lead pipes with pipes made of copper or other materials would be a Herculean task. There are approximately 7.3 million lead service lines throughout the U.S. that connect water mains to buildings. Drinking water utilities like Flint’s often don’t know where lead plumbing is located. Plus, those lead lines often cross between public property and private property, which makes it harder to force property owners to replace their lines.
“Ultimately, removing the lead lines would be optimal,” said Tracy Mehan, the executive director for government affairs for the American Water Works Association, which represents 4,000 water utilities. “But it won’t be cheap, and it will take time. It will take contributions from private owners, from society at-large and utilities.”
The push for infrastructure upgrades comes as federal, state and local officials scramble to address the water quality issues in Flint, where the water system and homes have had lead plumbing for decades. Residents didn’t report anything out of the ordinary until April 2014, when the city, under a state-appointed emergency manager, switched the source of its drinking water from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River. Because Flint failed to add anti-corrosive chemicals to the water (as required by the EPA) the new water source corroded the pipes. Lead is still getting into the water even though Flint switched back to Detroit water.
Flint residents began complaining about the quality of the water almost as soon as the switch was made. State officials initially downplayed those concerns until a Flint pediatrician documented high levels of lead in local children’s blood and a Virginia Tech researcher showed that lead levels in the water were much higher than the state reported.
The revelations prompted calls for Snyder’s resignation. The Republican governor declined to step aside. Instead, he apologized several times to Flint residents and accepted the resignation of the chief of Michigan’s environmental agency. He also backed a $28 million aid package for Flint in the Michigan Legislature.
For now, government officials are following federal rules and hope the Detroit water, which is treated with anti-corrosive chemicals, will recoat the lead pipes with a protective layer over time.