Image Courtesy of Dan Watson /

Should We Trust the Tap? The Quest for Safe Drinking Water

Lynn Adams
Apr 1, 2016

Flint /noun/: a hard type of rock that produces a spark when struck. In Flint Michigan approximately 8,000 children under the age of six were exposed to unsafe levels of lead through their drinking water. This is perhaps one of the most severe cases of lead poisoning in the United States; and hopefully the spark that ignites significant change to current drinking water safety policies.

In 2014, the City switched their water source from the Detroit water system to the nearby Flint River, purportedly to save money. Immediately, residents complained about the smell and taste of the water. Three months after the switch, sewage was detected in Flint tap water; residents were advised to boil it. Rates of legionnaire’s disease rose about this same time: according to the Centers for Disease Control, a city the size of Flint would expect to see one case of legionnaire’s per year; since June of 2015 it has identified 87 cases, people have died, and the pathogen was found in the water pipes.

Even more concerning, the number of infants and children with elevated blood lead levels has almost doubled since the city switched to using the Flint River as its water source. Lead poisoning can cause serious health problems, particularly in children under the age of 6, because lead poisoning affects development – both mental and physical. The greatest risk is to brain development, in which the damage can be irreversible, but the kidneys and nervous system may also be damaged. At very high levels, lead poisoning can result in death. Medications to bind the lead so that the body can excrete it are available, but this approach only removes lead from the body, it doesn’t reverse the damage that has already occurred.

So what happened? In Flint, more and more details of economic challenges, outdated and unsafe water treatment facilities, and bad decision making are coming to light. With regard to the lead issue, the decision was made not to add anti-corrosion chemicals to the water that would have prevented the release of lead into the water. Drinking water usually starts out mostly lead free because most source waters have very low levels. Lead leaches into tap water as it flows through lead lines and across lead-soldered joints, or as it sits next to brass and bronze fixtures that contain lead. Lead contamination can also occur due to water treatment changes that change the water chemistry, which leads to disruption of lead-containing deposits in service lines, and corrosion of lead-bearing solder, pipes, faucets, and fixtures. Lead can also leach into tap water due to physical disruption occurring during repairs.

How far-reaching is this problem in the U.S.? Although the government banned lead water pipes thirty years ago, it is estimated that between 3.3 and 10 million old lead pipes remain. According to the CDC, approximately four million households are exposed to high levels of lead, and there are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

The incident in Michigan is only the most recent, other issues have occurred: Sebring, Ohio (2015) stopped adding chemicals to keep lead pipes from corroding, it took 5 months to reveal this to the public; in Washington, DC (2001) a switch in water disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine caused the release of lead, which increased up to 20 times the approved level, residents didn’t know for 3 years; Lakehurst Acres in Maine (2006) a new water treatment system to remove arsenic from the water inadvertently caused lead levels to increase above safe levels; in Brick Township, NJ (2014) the excessive use of salt on the roads and sidewalks in the winter increased chloride levels that corroded old lead pipes; Durham and Greenville NC (2006); Columbia SC (2005); Jackson Miss (2015) all had similar incidents. According to a 2004 Washington Post article, 274 U.S. utilities serving 11.5 million people reported high lead levels in drinking water between 2000 and 2004.

Although a very serious threat, lead is not the only issue that the public need worry about in drinking water. There are many harmful contaminants that have not been evaluated and are not regulated, that are released into the environment and may find their way into ground water and eventually, the tap. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of 100 unregulated and potentially risky chemicals and 12 microbes known or suspected to be in public water systems. However, regulatory agencies like the EPA get pushback from the industries responsible for these contaminants, because of potential cost increases related to testing, regulating and potentially replacing said chemicals with safer ones.

Another issue is that there just isn’t enough funding for EPA and state level regulatory agencies to do their jobs effectively. It has been reported that adjusted for inflation, the $100 million annual budget for EPA’s office of ground water and drinking water has fallen 15% since 2006 and the office has lost more than a 10th of its staff. At the state level, federal officials slashed drinking water grants, 17 states cut drinking water budgets by more than one fifth, and 27 states cut spending on full time employees. The cumulative effect of these falling resources affects the agencies’ ability to protect public health.

Ironically, the state of Michigan has received 3-year funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for lead poisoning prevention programmatic activities. In fiscal year 2014, the state of Michigan received $327,353 in direct funds for these efforts. Apparently, none of these funds were spent in Flint. 

Image courtesy of Cait Liu /


Lynn Adams

Lynn S. Adams, Ph.D. is an Alumni Fellow. She blogs about nutrition policy, the connections between nutrition and disease risk, the health effects of environmental exposures and the cancer prevention potential of natural products at Sci on the Fly. If you want Lynn to share her posts with you, follow her on Twitter: @lstedda68.


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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Comments (1)

Dorothy Yuan (not verified)
April 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm
So what is the solution to this problem? Should we all switch to bottled water? Recently, our local supermarket was advertising sale of coconut water shipped all the way from Hawaii. Should we support such a drain on the environmental cost of production, transportation and disposal? For myself I think I am willing to risk the possibility of detriments to my health which may surely be less than what is in the city air or in the processed foods that we consume.

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