Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offered a $2 million grant to spearhead a national effort centered on addressing lead contamination in water systems across the country.
Virginia Tech Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Marc Edwards, Ph.D. and his colleagues at Louisiana State University and North Carolina State University were awarded the grant, which will be distributed over a period of three years. Edwards rose to prominence in 2016 during the height of the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. Edwards, along with local pediatrician Mona Hanna-¬Attisha, published the initial research that prompted Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to declare a state of emergency in Jan. 2016, which signaled the start of a major public health crisis that continues today, according to The New York Times.
Edwards welcomed the funding and explained that it would help him and his colleagues assist communities across the country that, like Flint, have serious problems with lead contamination.
Addressing an extensive issue
Of the one million pipes delivering water throughout the country, a vast majority were installed during the 1950s, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most of these fixtures had lifespans of 75 to 100 years upon installation, meaning most are well past due for replacement. Unfortunately, local and state governments have taken little action due to lack of funds, leaving decaying water delivery infrastructure in place that suffers from widespread oxidization. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for water main breakdowns, 240,000 of which occur annually, and, more worryingly, contamination. An estimated $1 trillion is needed to change the status quo and bring America’s pipes up to date, but this level of funding does not exist.
With this in mind, government stakeholders are looking for alternative solutions. This search is what led the EPA to partner with Edwards and the other researchers who received funding from the grant. The research is going to center on understanding the state of existing water delivery structures and equipping individual homeowners with strategies for keeping themselves and their families safe.
“The whole idea is, at the end of this, to come up with a model to predict which cities are likely to have problems,” Edwards told CNN. “Which cities are most likely to have lead pipes, and not be following the rules, and then work with communities there to figure out if they do have a problem, then build algorithms for individual homeowners to protect themselves, from sampling to filters.”
In addition to working on this new project, Edwards intends to return to Flint to check on the progress of pipe replacement efforts and the families he helped. The researcher will also evaluate some of the stopgap water supply and filtering methods used during the crisis to measure their effectiveness as the odds of such strategies being used again are, unfortunately, extremely high. However, if Edwards is able to develop workable predictive models using EPA funding, large-scale improvements could become more feasible and make American families safer.