Corrosion Affects City Water Supply


The city of Flint, MI, has a problem with severe iron and lead corrosion in its water distribution system. Marc Edwards, an expert on municipal water quality, is seeking ways to address the trouble.

Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech, is part of a 17-person team working with a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the issue for one year, Virginia Tech announced Monday (Sept. 14).

The grant is part of NSF’s Rapid Response Research program, which is applied to projects deemed to pose a “severe urgency.” Edwards submitted his project proposal in August, and it was approved in September.

Problems with Flint’s water quality have been making the news, Edwards says, so much so that the EPA is sending in experts to help address the corrosion problems as well.

According to Edwards, the Flint situation is unique in that government authorities insist there is no problem with their water supply and continues to encourage its residents to consume its tap.

In the proposal Edwards sent to the NSF regarding his project, he wrote: “Flint, Michigan, is currently suffering from a ‘perfect storm’ attributable to out-of-control corrosion of its potable water distribution system.

“The corrosion is undermining water affordability for residents, financial viability of city government, water aesthetics, and hygiene/sanitation,” he added.

Lead in the Water

Two of Edwards’ concerns, and a focus in the team’s research, is that the corrosion problems will create “severe chemical/ biological health risks for Flint residents, including elevated levels of lead,” as well as possible bacterial problems. 

He indicates that lead and bacteria are among the most significant health problems related to modern potable water systems.

The team has already begun to work with area homeowners to undertake a thorough survey of water contamination in their homes.

Out of the 300 sample kits sent to the residents, 277 were returned to Virginia Tech —a 90 percent return rate.

The samples showed high levels of lead even in relatively low-risk homes, which is at odds with reports of government authorities, Edwards says. 

© / DenGuy

Samples from one home showed lead levels that averaged 2,000 parts per billion after 20 minutes of flushing—which is 200 times higher than the World Health Organization allows in potable water.

According to Edwards, one child has already been discovered to have elevated levels of lead in the blood. In water samples taken from the child’s home, the lead levels averaged 2,000 parts per billion after 20 minutes of flushing—which is 200 times higher than the World Health Organization allows in potable water.

The study team is recording their research progress and findings in a blog called Flint Water Study Updates, which was started on Aug. 23.

About the Virginia Tech Team

Edwards is the Charles Lunsford Professor with the Virginia Tech Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He gained national attention for his work in bringing to light Washington, DC’s water quality issues and for winning a MacAuthor Fellowship in 2007.

Other members on the team are fellow civil and environmental engineering faculty member and professor Amy Pruden and Joe Falkinham of the Department of Biological Sciences within the Virginia Tech College of Science.

The Flint Water Supply blog is managed by civil and environmental engineering doctoral student Siddhartha Roy, who serves as writer and communications director on the project.

Roy is joined by 13 other undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and research scientists on the response team.

Virginia Tech has a history of working with NSF Rapid Response Grants. It has used the awards to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the 2014 West Virginia Elk River chemical spill.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech offers its 7,800 undergraduates a curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program.

With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,300 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Cast iron; Colleges and Universities; Corrosion; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; Lead; North America; Pipeline; Pipes; potable water; Research

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