Flint, Michigan – Making Sure History Doesn’t Repeat Itself

Aug 11, 2016 11:30 AM ET
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The following post is part of a series of stories written by Booz Allen Hamilton’s Summer Games interns. The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Booz Allen.

By Camille McGirt and Anna Deberry

The news of contaminated water reaching the citizens of Flint, Michigan, has been heartbreaking – and worrisome.  How easily could this happen in towns across the U.S.?

As members of the Real Time Corrosion Control Monitoring for Drinking Water project team for the Booz Allen Hamilton’s Summer Games Challenge, we are using innovative technologies to rethink and develop new solutions involving instant detection and real-time reporting to ensure those towns are protected.

The Flint story was eye-opening.

In 2014, a state-appointed manager decided to change Flint’s city water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, as a cost cutting measure. Subsequently, Flint residents noticed palatable changes in their drinking water, and a public outcry for investigations commenced. Authorities did not ensure that the water was being treated by a corrosion inhibitor, and the water source switch caused lead to leach into the pipes of residential homes.

No level of lead exposure is known to be safe. The ingestion of water contaminated with lead can be detrimental to children. At high levels it can affect brain and central nervous system, and cause convulsions, coma and even death. Lead exposure can also cause anemia, hypertension, renal impairment and harm to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.

What’s scary about Flint story, is that many water systems today fail to properly test drinking water, nor do they report to state officials. Many are taking advantage of the weak regulatory language in the lead and copper rule (LCR) and are underreporting their lead level. In addition, current regulated sampling protocols don’t inform most consumers about the lead levels in their tap water.

Our highly motivated team wants to solve this problem.

We are developing a device that will help detect lead particles in drinking water, that go above the EPA’s action level limit of 15 ppb. Our system will alert users if the water is unsafe to drink, and inform relevant third parties about lead concentrations that are above the action level. The device will capture data in real-time, be inexpensive, and easily transferable to other geographies that are impacted by drinking water contamination.

We want our product to help Flint – but also hope it is adopted nationwide so future generations can be assured that their water is safe.

Camille McGirt is a masters of public health student studying public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Anna Deberry is an undergraduate student studying chemical engineering at John Hopkins University; both are Booz Allen interns based in Washington, D.C.