Chemical Responsibility: Correcting the Flint Water Crisis through Analytical Chemistry

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched its primary water source from that treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the nearby Flint River. In the ensuing months, nearly 12,000 children have begun experiencing a series of health issues related to everything from lead poisoning to Legionnaire’s Disease. What happened, and what can be done about it now?

 

The Chemical Backstory of Flint’s Water
Most of the water lines leading to Flint, MI were installed in the early 1900s and were thus made of lead. Many cities have lead pipes, and most treat the source of their drinking water with orthophosphate, which keeps the water from corroding city pipes and leeching lead into drinking water. Unfortunately, in Flint’s case, phosphate wasn’t added to the Flint River once it became the source of the city’s drinking water and the protective mineral coating on the pipes began to erode.

The results have been disastrous. Thousands – many children – are showing signs of heavy metal poisoning and the water has even been blamed for an outbreak of the deadly Legionnaire’s Disease. After much misinformation, denials, and testing, the city of Flint finally returned to safer Detroit water in October 8th.

 

Correcting the Water Crisis with Chemicals
While the after effects of contaminated drinking water still ripple through Flint, many ask what comes next. The city made several mistakes when attempting to treat its water. In an attempt to stamp out carcinogenic chloromethane byproducts in the water, the city added ferric chloride which actively sped up the level of mineral depletion in the lead pipes. These mistakes must not be repeated.

Fortunately, the city’s lead pipes don’t pose a risk in-and-of themselves; in about a year they should redevelop a mineral coating that keeps the metal from leeching into water. Continued applications of phosphate will help deter insoluble oxidized metal compounds produced as the pipes corrode.

Corroding infrastructure is also a concern in Flint. As iron pipes and materials degrade over time, the exposed iron can react with chlorine – added to the city’s water as a bacterial treatment – rendering it useless against certain harmful pathogens.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?
The EPA is considering raising its “Lead and Copper Rule” to above 90%, meaning that they’ll no longer approve a city’s water safety as long as 90% of the data collected is within safe levels. Cities are now looking at their own corrosion inhibition plans to ensure anti-corrosion. Phosphate inhibitors are a good start, but other factors like low pH levels and high chlorine levels can also impact corrosion levels.

By using analytical chemistry to detect inconsistencies in the city’s water, Flint officials and the EPA were able to look past symptoms – discolored, off-tasting water – and come to a conclusion. What’s disheartening is that Flint city officials were already collecting all the chemical data they needed to identify the problem…but it wasn’t being analyzed. Chemical data does no one any good if it’s not thoughtfully controlled, monitored, and tested.

 

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