Water and Lead Contamination

Water contaminated by lead has been a long standing problem throughout human history, spanning back even to the Roman Empire where most of Rome's water system was made of lead piping and rich Roman aristocrats extensively used cooking vessels made from lead. Even today lead contamination is still a considerable challenge for many societies, even ones as wealthy and resourceful as the United States.

Likely the most prominent example of water contaminated by lead in the United States today is the ongoing water crisis in Flint Michigan. The water crisis in Flint began when the city changed water sources from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. During the this switch civil engineers failed to introduce corrosive inhibitors into the new Flint River source resulting a leaching effect on many of the older pipes in the Flint City water system as well as in homes.  Leaching is the chemical process by which metals are dissolved into liquid, corrosive inhibiting chemicals are used to prevent this process thus reducing the amount of lead, or any metal, that can be introduced to a water supply.

Another example water contaminated by lead is in Washington D.C. during the early 2000s. In 2001 the EPA conducted tests upon water samples in D.C. and found that the levels of lead were well about the national standard for lead levels (15 parts per billion). This finding prompted a further examination of home water quality in the D.C. area and it was found that the water quality of a large swaths of homes were contaminated by lead.

The subsequent investigation into the cause revealed that one of the primary causes of was switch in corrosive inhibitors, from chlorine to chloramine. The introduction of chloramine set in motion the chemical degradation of thousands of drinking water pipes in Washington D.C. which resulted in vastly higher levels of lead in the water.

Water contaminated by lead is a long standing issue in the United States. The two given examples are examples of how even technologically advanced societies still suffer from the challenges typically associated with developed nations. Below is an info-graphic that illustrates sources of lead contamination due to leaching commonly found in homes.

Nriagu, J. O. (1983). Saturnine gout among Roman aristocrats: did lead poisoning contribute to the fall of the Empire?.

Edwards, M., Triantafyllidou, S., & Best, D. (2009). Elevated blood lead in young children due to lead-contaminated drinking water: Washington, DC, 2001− 2004. Environmental science & technology43(5), 1618-1623.




Written by: Ted Esparza