For centuries, cities in the United States used an inexpensive, malleable, and leak-resistant material for constructing their water pipes: lead. Today, the health risks posed by lead pipes are well-known. Drinking lead-contaminated water can stunt children's development and cause heart and kidney problems among adults.¹ The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of lead pipes for new construction in 1986. Yet, today, lead services lines (the pipes that take water from city lines into individual homes) are still prevalent across the country.
More than six years after residents of Flint, Michigan, suffered widespread lead poisoning from their drinking water, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to improve water quality and bolster the city's economy. But residents still report a type of community PTSD, waiting in long grocery store lines to stock up on bottled water and filters. Media reports Wednesday said former governor Rick Snyder has been charged with neglect of duty for his role in the crisis. Snyder maintains his innocence, but he told Congress in 2016, "Local, state and federal officials--we all failed the families of Flint." One tool that emerged from the crisis is a form of artificial intelligence that could prevent similar problems in other cities where lead poisoning is a serious concern.
In Flint, Michigan, residents still don't trust the drinking water. After city managers switched its water source to the Flint River in 2014 in order to save money, residents began complaining about the smell and the taste almost immediately. Because water pipes were not treated with corrosive control agents, the river water began leaching lead from old lead pipes fitted in homes across the city. It's been over a year since the EPA declared an emergency in the city and recovery efforts began in earnest. On this week's Inquiring Minds episode, host Kishore Hari talks to Siddhartha Roy, a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech, who was part of the group of civil engineers that went to Flint in August 2015--more than a year after residents began complaining--to perform research on the tap water.
We detail our ongoing work in Flint, Michigan to detect pipes made of lead and other hazardous metals. After elevated levels of lead were detected in residents' drinking water, followed by an increase in blood lead levels in area children, the state and federal governments directed over $125 million to replace water service lines, the pipes connecting each home to the water system. In the absence of accurate records, and with the high cost of determining buried pipe materials, we put forth a number of predictive and procedural tools to aid in the search and removal of lead infrastructure. Alongside these statistical and machine learning approaches, we describe our interactions with government officials in recommending homes for both inspection and replacement, with a focus on the statistical model that adapts to incoming information. Finally, in light of discussions about increased spending on infrastructure development by the federal government, we explore how our approach generalizes beyond Flint to other municipalities nationwide.
Since news broke of the Flint crisis, lots of readers have asked for tips on how to avoid lead contamination in their own water. And for good reason: Lead pipes and plumbing are still relatively common in America, and water testing for the contaminant is notoriously spotty. Until the mid-1900s, lead was a go-to material for plumbing and service lines--the pipes that connect the city's main pipes to each home. It wasn't until 1986 that the US Environmental Protection Agency, recognizing the element's disastrous effects on kids' brains, mandated that all new lead solder, plumbing, and service lines be "lead-free." The catch is that the rule didn't apply to buildings constructed before 1986, and "lead-free" was defined as 8 percent lead until 2014, when a new policy kicked in that lowered that number to 0.25 percent.