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Drinking Water Contamination: Can It Happen In Your Town?

February 16, 2017

Think about lead.

There is probably no metallic constituent in our industrial society for which the vigilant practice of hazardous waste management is more important.

As this is being written, lead commands nearly $2400 per metric ton. It is an essential material in car batteries—especially in the rapidly expanding realm of electric and hybrid vehicles. It is also a crucial metal for backup power systems in data-centers, hospitals, medical clinics, and other venues where power failures or voltage variations can be catastrophic to life and property.

As such, lead’s value to society is considerable and diverse, and its existence in our environment will only increase in the years to come, especially for its application to high-tech batteries as a replacement for politically unpopular fossil fuel technologies.

Yet, lead is dangerous—mortally so. Few things in the world are as useful as lead and yet so commensurately hazardous. Consider:

Lead is a neurotoxin. Inadvertent lead consumption can compromise one’s heart, kidney, and neural functioning. Lead exposure in children is known to cause impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems, and delayed puberty. Lead correlates with reduced fetal growth in pregnant women. And although there are medications that can reduce the levels of lead in one’s blood, there are no treatments for the many dire health consequences of lead poisoning.

Clearly, expert hazardous waste management is a prime exigency when any quantity of lead comes to an end of its useful life.

Lead in Your Drinking Water

You can be exposed to lead from many sources, including paint, gasoline, solder, and consumer products. And it can invade your body through different pathways, such as air, food, dust, and soil. But lead-contaminated water has lately taken the fore in the public’s collective mind—in no small part due to the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, which magnifies the need for diligent hazardous waste disposal.

What Happened In Flint

Undoubtedly, the most notorious example of water-supply lead contamination is Flint, Michigan. As a way to save money—while a new pipeline was being built to access water from Lake Huron— the city turned to the Flint River as a water source during what was to be a two-year transition. And while the Flint River had been the city’s primary source of water long ago, it hadn’t been so since 1967. Why?

Around that time, the Flint River downstream from the city was found to have fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances. Meanwhile, in 2001, the state saw fit to order the monitoring and cleanup of no less than 134 polluted sites within the Flint River watershed, including factories, landfill sites, and farms oozing with pesticides and fertilizer.

So what does this have to do with lead?

Beyond sourcing polluted water for city residents to drink, it was found that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality was not treating the Flint River water with anti-corrosives, in violation of federal law. Thus, the river water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Detroit, which is accessed from Lake Huron.  How corrosive is that?

Consider: The General Motors engineers in a plant located in Flint stopped using the city water because high chlorine levels risked corroding engine parts (let alone human stomach linings). But worse, since the water was so corrosive, lead from aging city pipelines began leaching into that water.

So lead found its way into Flint’s drinking water not because it was extant in the soil per se. Instead, other soil contaminants rendered the Flint River’s water chemistry so corrosive as to extract lead from pipelines that were relatively benign when other sources of water (i.e. from Lake Huron) had coursed through them for nearly half a century.

So Is There Lead-Contaminated Drinking Water In Your City or Town?

Last December, Reuters, the international news agency headquartered in England, released a report alleging there are nearly 3,000 other locations across the United States where lead contamination is at least double that of Flint’s drinking water, stretching from as far east as Pennsylvania to as far west as Texas.

Per Reuters, like Flint, many of these localities have water contaminated by industrial waste due to nonexistent or improper hazardous waste management.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, as a direct result of drinking contaminated water, at least 2.5 percent of children in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Other groundwater toxins

It’s just not lead. In the City of Newburgh in upstate New York, officials recently began offering blood tests to its 28,000 residents after perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was found in the city’s drinking water at levels exceeding federal guidelines. The chemical has been linked to health issues such as thyroid problems and cancer.

In Newburgh, the chemical found its way into the groundwater because it was used for years in firefighting foam at a nearby military air base. But PFOS has many industrial uses besides firefighting foam: e.g. as a stain repellent against water, oil, soil, and grease; as an ingredient in hydraulic fluids; and to control fumes during metal plating.

That said, there are many industrial sites throughout the United States where spent PFOS requires proper chemical disposal, and some where it is unfortunately not happening. For example, residents have been found to have elevated levels of the chemical in Portsmouth in New Hampshire, Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh in New York, as well as other places around the country.


These examples bring to fore the fragility of our ecosystem and how poor hazardous waste management can have consequences beyond the specific chemical that is being monitored. To wit, lead in Flint’s drinking water was a byproduct of improperly forgoing water treatment against corrosives. PFOS found its way into Newburgh’s water taps because it escaped attention as a toxic constituent to firefighting foam.

In sum, when mishandled and in abundance, almost any substance has the potential to require hazardous waste management.

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.