Over the course of the past several months, the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s water supply has gained international attention. Flint’s 100,000 residents have been exposed to lead in their drinking water since the city switched its source from Detroit city water to the Flint River in 2014. The lead contamination stems from faulty pipes leaching lead into the water as it flows through them, but the reason for the advanced stage of corrosion in those pipes is something quite startling. According to local environmental experts, the widespread use of salt to de-ice slippery winter roads has led to increased chloride levels in the Flint River, as well as many others in the northeastern United States, where road salt use has risen steadily in recent years.

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Road salt mixes with natural salts in the river and the extra chloride added by the city, resulting in high levels of chloride that eat away at pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water supply. In most cases, city officials would be required to take preventive measures to ensure that high chloride concentrations don’t interfere with water quality. However, in Flint, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) failed to require a corrosion control system after the city switched its water source to the Flint River. The switch, after all, was a cost-saving measure and implementing corrosion control would require additional spending, so city leaders opted not to do it. According to Marc Edwards, one of the water treatment experts behind the Flint Water Study, a corrosion control system could have protected residents from lead exposure.

Related: Michigan water crisis escalates to a federal emergency, local officials come under fire

Edwards explained to the Guardian how a water crisis like this could happen in any number of cities that rely on road salt to keep streets clear in the winter. “In U.S. cities where ice is a problem in winter, the average road salt use per person per year is 135 pounds,” he said. “It’s incredible. In many northeastern cities because of road salt use, salt content in rivers has doubled in the last 20 years.” In the snowiest climes, like Maine, as much as 750 pounds of salt per person can be dumped on the roads each year.

Lead poisoning is of particular concern for children, since it can interfere with most body processes and with development. A federal emergency was declared over the weekend, allowing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government arms to provide immediate relief in the form of bottled water, water filters, and healthcare assistance. Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital have teamed up to create the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, an effort focused on treating Flint’s children for lead poisoning and helping the community come to grips with the long-term effects. The project brings together 35 experts in fields including pediatrics, child development, toxicology, psychology, and education, and will be lead by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the local pediatrician who discovered high lead levels in children after the water supply switch.

Via The Guardian

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