Why your community's water could be as contaminated as Flint's: 3 things to know

The saga of water contamination in Flint, Mich., may be emblematic of a much larger crisis. The water supplies of communities across the nation are at risk, according to an article from In These Times.

Thousands of Flint residents have been and continue to be poisoned by the community's contaminated water. Chicago, Philadelphia and hundreds of other cities have old pipes and lead problems, but that's just the beginning of the challenges many municipalities face regarding their water supplies. Here are three things to know about the contamination of America's tap water.

1. Flint: What happened in Flint is well documented and the scandal has been called the result of racism, malfeasance and negligent fiscal austerity. Under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, Flint switched its drinking water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which contains high levels of bacteria. The Flint sewage treatment plant used chlorine to treat the water. Chlorine adds to waters corrosive capabilities, which exasperated the lead problems in Flint — a community with an aging network of pipes. Pulling drinking water from rivers rife with sewage is not an uncommon practice across the country. Neither is treating river water with chlorine.

2. Poisonous economics: According to In These Times, lead pipes replaced iron by the turn of the 20th century. Not long after the switch, reports of lead poisoning began to surface. By the 1920s, cities all over the nation had banned the use of lead pipes but the manufacturing industry pushed back, advocating aggressively for the continued use of these pipes. The pro-lead pipe campaign proved successful. A ban on the use of lead in the construction of new water distribution systems didn't pass until 1986. The burden of replacing these outdated constructions is currently placed on local governments. Beginning in 2001, Madison, Wis., invested $19.4 million to replace its lead pipes over an 11-year period. Economically depressed municipalities across the country, like Flint, can't afford such reconstruction plans.

3. Ineffectual regulations: While most of the nation's municipal water departments work diligently to keep their communities water safe, they do not have the authority or fiscal resources to change the community's water delivery infrastructure. The purported regulatory goal for lead in drinking water is zero, but the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't think this is a reasonable goal for water treatment facilities, so the acceptable concentration is 15 parts per billion. While the CDC states that water reaching the level of 15 ppb is not likely to elevate levels of lead in the blood in most adults, they acknowledge risk can vary per individual. Infants are particularly vulnerable. A portion of the CDC's information page about lead reads, "Infants who drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water may be at a higher risk because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size."

More articles on infection control: 
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Top 10 infection control stories, March 28-April 1

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