Harvard Chan School’s Philippe Grandjean, an expert in how environmental pollution impairs brain development, says that Flint, Michigan’s water crisis could have been prevented, given the United States’ long experience with lead contamination—and how to prevent it.

Flint, Michigan, temporarily switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 to cut costs. Should officials have known that lead contamination would result?

Yes. We are dealing an ancient problem. Lead, a malleable and inexpensive metal, has been used for water pipes since the Roman period. It’s been known since then that toxic amounts of lead from these pipes could be released into soft water. This can occur because lead can be dissolved by weak acids found in many water supplies.

The solution was well-known, either the lead pipes had to be removed or water quality had to be changed. Replacing the pipes can be very costly, especially if their locations are no longer known, so adding lime and other corrosion inhibitors to community water has often been used as a remedy.

Even with these known problems, it was only a few decades ago that plumbing codes were changed to require water pipes be made of materials other than lead. So today, a substantial number of service lines, distribution lines, and household water pipes in American communities are made of lead.

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