Lead water lines and Boston water

You may have heard or read a lot about the municipal water crisis in Flint, MI, and wonder if the same thing could happen in Boston. We tend to take clean water for granted because we always seem to have it. The clean, safe water that comes out of our taps is the end result of the efforts of a lot of people who are dedicated to keeping our water safe and healthy.

What happened in Flint?
Flint, MI is an industrial city about 65 miles northwest of Detroit. Flint used to get its water from the City of Detroit, but decided to switch to its backup source – the Flint River. Following the switch, residents began complaining about foul-smelling, foul-tasting and visibly “dirty” tap water. Hospitals and businesses stopped using city water. Even General Motors stopped using city water in its Flint manufacturing plants because the water was damaging the company’s auto parts.

Doctors noticed an alarming spike in the number of young children testing positive for lead poisoning and tried to sound the alarm. The State of Michigan denied there was a problem with Flint’s water, and claimed that the water met all federal acceptable clean water standards.

After more than a year of complaints by Flint residents, the State of Michigan finally acknowledged the problem. The state had failed to require the addition of an anti-corrosive agent to the treated water after switching the city’s water supply. “Pure” water is naturally slightly acidic or neutral, but this pH level can corrode and deteriorate the plumbing infrastructure. It is common for water treatment plants to add agents to counteract this.

Over the course of 17 months, Flint did not take steps to counteract its “acidic” water. In addition to damaging its own pipes, the fresh (but still corrosive) water damaged all of the privately owned supply pipes from the city’s water mains to all the way to the taps in homes and businesses throughout Flint.

The fallout
Anti-corrosive agents protect pipes of all kinds – copper, galvanized iron and even lead. It’s not uncommon to find lead supply lines bringing water from a city’s infrastructure into an older home or building. Further, older buildings with copper pipes can have lead solder in pipe joints. Older brass fixtures may also contain lead. Lead can leach out of pipes, joints and fixtures if the supplier does not adjust water’s natural pH.

Lead isn’t the only potentially dangerous material used in plumbing. Under the right conditions galvanized iron and copper pipes can release large quantities of iron and copper into the water. Both of these metals are poisonous in large amounts and can cause short-term and long-term health problems.

Lead poisoning causes permanent damage to humans, especially young children. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that there is no “safe” level of lead exposure. Even small amounts of lead can do a lot of damage. The human body doesn’t distinguish between calcium, iron, zinc and lead very well, and it stores lead just like it stores these other desirable elements. That’s one reason lead is so hard to get rid of once it’s been ingested. In Flint, public health officials now believe that all of the city’s nearly 10,000 children have varying degrees of lead poisoning.

At Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating, we take our plumbing seriously, and our team is committed to creating the healthiest, safest environment in terms of plumbing, heating and cooling. In my next post, I’ll discuss what the MWRA is doing (and what you can do) to avoid accidental exposure to lead. Meanwhile, if you have questions about lead plumbing or lead water line replacement, please call us at Boston Standard Plumbing at (617) 288-2911 to discuss your options.

Photo Credit: Carlos Sillero, via FreeImages.com