Can a Flint Happen Here?

You’ve probably heard about the tragedy impacting residents of Flint, Michigan, where household tap water of most residents has become hopelessly contaminated and unsafe to drink or bathe in. This happened after the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, whose water is far more corrosive. This caused the leaching of various pollutants from the water mains and service lines going into resident homes. The most worrisome of the pollutants is lead.

A little background is in order. For a long time lead was the most common material used for plumbing pipes, dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. In fact, the word “plumber” comes from the Latin terms “plumbum,” meaning lead, and “plumbarium,” which translates as a worker with lead. Because lead is easily malleable, the ancient Romans found it the ideal material to fabricate water pipes. When modern plumbing first began to take shape in the 1800s, there were no pipe manufacturers. Early plumbers had to make their own pipe and, like the Romans, they settled on material that would be relatively easy to work with, which was lead.

The lead pipe also became the material of choice for municipal water mains and the service lines that connect those mains to homes and buildings. Many of our older eastern cities still have lead mains and service lines that in some cases date back more than a century. (The earliest American water mains were mainly made of wood, a few of which still remain in service in old cities like Boston.) It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that medical researchers identified lead as a toxic health threat, especially impacting childhood development.

So why isn’t everyone back east suffering from lead poisoning? Fortunately, calcium and other minerals in our water supplies coat the inner surfaces of water pipes so that the flowing water doesn’t come directly in contact with lead. This prevents leaching and chemical treatments can be added to water supplies to enhance such resistance – the absence of such treatment is what led to the crisis in Flint.

Once the lead was identified as a toxic substance plumbing codes got changed to prevent the use of lead pipes to convey water. It would cost billions and billions of dollars to dig up and replace all the ancient lead water piping still in use, though they do get replaced when a line breaks and must be dug up to repair. Meantime, most water mains and service lines are now made of other materials, such as copper, galvanized iron or heavy-duty plastic.

Here out west most of our population centers arose after lead fell out of favor of water pipes. In this area, most service lines are made of copper. So does this mean our drinking water is entirely free from lead contamination?

Not entirely. We’re certainly at lesser risk than so many older cities back east that are still served by lead pipes. Yet a smaller but not insignificant danger lurks from the fact that most of our region’s copper pipe was joined by lead-based solder, which wasn’t banned until 1986. Chlorinated water, in particular, can cause leaching of that lead.

I don’t want to exaggerate the threat, but it would be irresponsible to say that some amount of lead cannot invade your home’s water supply. If you one of our Family Plan members, ask our technician to test your water quality during your annual inspection and maintenance visit, or give us a call and ask us to check your water quality. Especially notify us if your water starts showing discoloration or bad taste.