The image at the top of this post shows a completed section of a Seattle water supply pipe near Renton, WA around the year 1900. More about this image here. Although this photo shows a particularly early example of water infrastructure being created in the U.S., still most of the water infrastructure in this country was laid down decades ago, before most Americans alive today were born.
Do Americans take safe drinking water for granted?
Most likely, according to Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech. Edwards won a 2007 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called a “Genius” grant. Edwards – an expert in drinking water safety – said Americans have better access to quality drinking water than most of the world.
He should know. He’s worked on a national scale to ensure safe drinking water, through an aging and sometimes dangerous water-delivery infrastructure.
Marc Edwards: Most of the water pipes and treatment plants in our country are over 40 years old right now. And they’re nearing the end of their useful life.
Edwards said one problem is lead – that the U.S. has over 5 million lead pipes in its water infrastructure. He said it would cost $1 trillion to completely correct this problem. Over time, lead corrodes and leaches into the water and fosters bacteria growth.
There are no laws requiring lead testing or replacement of plumbing. Lead poisoning in young children can lead to neurological problems. Meanwhile, Edwards said only 10% of schools have tested their drinking water in recent years.
Marc Edwards: There are simple measures we can take that are very inexpensive to mitigate this problem. For example, installing filters where the water comes out.
Lead pipes have been used since the Roman Empire began building aqueducts.
Marc Edwards: Lead is a good quality plumbing material, from the perspective that it lasts a long time and it does not break. Unfortunately, the little that can leach from those pipes into the water is sufficient to pose a serious health concern. More recently, the issue we’ve been discovering is pieces of lead from these pipes, and from lead solder, sometimes detach and essentially fall off into the water in pieces. This is very disconcerting, because in some cases you can take a single glass of water and if you’re unlucky, and it has that piece of lead in it, you can get a very high dose of lead, similar to that which you could obtain by eating lead paint chips.
In 2004, Edwards testified before Congress about his discovery of lead contamination in the Washington, DC area – the lead levels were off the scales. You can read his Congressional Testimony.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.