Thursday, April 26, 2018

EPA Grants $1.9 Million to Virginia Tech

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded $1,981,500 to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Va., to research lead in drinking water. Virginia Tech will use this funding to create a public assisted framework to detect and control lead in drinking water, working collaboratively with the public, encouraging citizen scientists to participate in the research.

Lead in drinking water is a national problem, and according to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt it is one of the greatest environmental threats we face as a country, especially dangerous for our children. Flint Michigan was not an aberration nor was it the worst incidence of lead in drinking water supplies. Flint became famous for their lead problem because of a combination of determined residents, blatant misrepresentation by public officials, and the good luck of engaging Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. This allowed Flint to become the poster child for lead in drinking water that Washington DC failed to become ten years earlier. Last year in an examination of data, Reuters found 3,000 communities that had recently recorded lead levels at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. Now, according to EPA Virginia Tech's research will move us one step closer to eradicating lead in drinking water.”

Lead does not exist in in most groundwater, rivers and lakes- the source water for most municipal and private water supplies. Instead, lead in drinking water is picked up from the pipes on its journey into a home. In older homes the water service lines delivering water from the water main in the street into each home were commonly made of lead. This practice began to fade by the 1950’s but was legal until 1988. Lead was also used to solder copper pipes together before 1988 (when the 1986 ban on lead in paint and solder went into effect). Also until very recently (2011 Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act) almost all drinking water fixtures were made from brass containing up to 8% lead, even if they carry a plated veneer of chrome, nickel or brushed aluminum and were sold as "lead-free." So even homes built with PVC piping in the 2000’s may have some lead in most of the faucets.

The nation’s water infrastructure the pipes, treatment plants and other critical components that deliver drinking water have grown old. In many of our cities water pipes installed when systems were built have only been replaced when they break. The building service lines that connect homes and businesses to the water mains are often the original lines. For decades instead of replacing lead pipes urban water companies have used chemicals to control lead and other chemicals from leaching into the water supply.

Many at the American Water Works Association and other scientists have questioned the wisdom of this strategy. Even when successful there is always some lead leaching into the drinking water. Many of us believe that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. No amount of exposure to lead is safe. Our national goal is to eliminate exposure to lead especially for children, who are both more susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts. Even at very low levels once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children.

According to Principal Investigator on the Project, Dr. Marc Edwards, “Our team will establish one of the largest citizen science engineering projects in U.S. history to help individuals and communities deal with our shared responsibility for controlling exposure to lead in drinking water through a combination of low-cost sampling, outreach, direct collaboration, and modeling,” Dr. Marc Edwards continued, “We will tap a growing ‘crowd’ of consumers who want to learn how to better protect themselves from lead, and in the process, also create new knowledge to protect others. Whether from wells or municipalities, we all consume water, and we can collectively work to reduce health risks.”

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