What made Flint’s water corrosive? Road salt, and it’s a problem across the country

A typical morning in the Mays’ household begins when Melissa Mays wakes up her 17, 12, and 11 year old sons so they can get ready for school while she and her husband prepare for  work. Her sons each take sit-down baths without running water, and Mays takes her own very fast shower. While it may seem that they are trying to conserve water, they are actually trying  to preserve what is left of their health. The Mays family, and other families in Flint, MI consumed water with high levels of lead and copper. When the Mays’s had their water tested, they found high levels of copper and lead “not only in our water, but in our blood,” said Mays.

Mays, her husband, and their three sons all have lead poisoning. The Mays family and other Flint citizens are experiencing these adverse health effects because of the city’s 14 month period piping in drinking water from the Flint River instead of using Detroit water, which comes from Lake Huron. This highly corrosive water flowed through Flint’s old lead pipe system, causing dangerous levels of lead and copper to leach into the city’s drinking water. A key cause of the river’s corrosivity was road salt. According to Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, the US Geological Survey has shown that areas where road salt is being used have doubled chloride levels in water over the past two decades. Flint is only the latest example of a problem that has effected older cities like Washington DC, and could effect others in the future.

The rising corrosivity of water supplies is a growing national problem that comes from putting 130 pounds of road salt per person in the winter on roads in the U.S. Salt is calcium chloride that flows from roads into water and makes it more corrosive. “It’s only a matter of time,” said Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, before there will be higher levels of chloride in the Great Lakes. These vast fresh water seas provide drinking water for 40 million people, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

An alternative to road salt is being developed by Scott and Julie Brusaw in Sandpoint, Idaho. They have created Solar Roadways, which are solar panels that can be walked, parked, and driven on. The Brusaw’s goal is to eventually cover every roadway with their solar panels, which use solar energy that keeps the panels a few degrees above freezing to melt snow and ice off roads during the winter.

“Not using road salt would keep our planet healthier overall,” said Alyssa Delbridge, Science Director for Solar Roadways. In 2009, Solar Roadways received a contract from the Federal Highway Administration to build two prototypes.  The first prototype is a 12 foot by 12 foot panel and a 3” by 3” crosswalk that was finished in February 2010. The second prototype is a parking lot in Idaho that is fully functional, with solar cells, LEDs, heating elements, and the textured glass that gives the panels ‘at least the same amount of traction as asphalt.’ It was completed in March of 2014.

In Genessee County, Flint’s county, 30,000 tons of road salt are used on average each year. An average tractor trailer holds 40 tons. The amount of road salt used in Genessee County would fill 750 tractor trailers. “[Road salt] affects our wildlife, it affects our lives. If we contaminate our water supplies, we end up spending more money on the other end,” said Branch.

According to Edwards, who has conducted research on public health and corrosion control, the crisis in Flint was not the first of its kind. Edwards was also involved in revealing the “DC Lead Crisis” from 2001-2004. On the outskirts of Washington DC, high levels of chloride flowed from roads into the water system and ate up the iron pipes in the city, much like the lead and copper poisoning that occurred in Flint more recently. “It’s even worse, we did not learn from our past mistakes,” said Edwards.

Road salt is still not acknowledged as a cause of corrosivity. “I don’t think that had an affect on it at all,” said Branch regarding the role road salt played in the corrosion of Flint Water. Alternatives to road salt used in Genessee county are calcium chloride and salt brine, which are both applied with salt to make it more effective, and have share salt’s environmental impact. The Flint Water Study conducted by Edwards and his Virginia Tech students showed that the corrosion rate of the water was 8.6 times worse than that of the Detroit water. Corrosive water increases lead levels, and the Flint River had 19 times more lead than Detroit water. If the river had been treated with phosphates, it would have been slightly safer, but would still have a corrosion rate 3.5 times higher than Detroit’s water, and with 15-17 times more lead. The decision to use the Flint River as a water source instead of Detroit water was made in March of last year.

The problems associated with road salt have been addressed in the past, specifically by the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1991 Lead and Copper rule, with the purpose of “protecting the public health by minimizing lead and copper levels in drinking water by reducing water corrosivity.” The Rule acknowledges that lead and copper most frequently enter water by being leached out of pipes.

The 1991 rule established an “action level” of 15 parts per billion of lead in the 90th percentile of collected samples. Exceeding an action level is not a violation, but a trigger for other requirements like corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring/treatment, public education, lead service line replacement, etc..

The city of Flint did not provide any of these services. According to the City, although some individual samples exceeded the 15 parts per billion lead action level, they did not have to take action until the 90th percentile had 15 ppb. The Virginia Tech testing found results ranging from 200-13,200 parts per billion of lead in the homes of residents. According to Edwards, no amount of lead is safe to consume. Currently the EPA is working to strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule.

Meanwhile, Flint citizens cope with the health effects. “People are starting to see repercussions from the poisoning and its very scary,” said Mays. The Mays family is no stranger to these repercussions.

Mays developed an autoimmune disorder last October, and in January she was diagnosed with a respiratory infection, . “Every time I coughed the mucus tasted like bleach, it tasted like cleaner,” said Mays. In March of 2015, Mays developed lupus. She works from 8-5 as an account executive at a local radio station, on top of her work for “Water You Fighting For?” the Flint activist organization she founded. Her eleven-year old son Cole was home sick in mid-October with a white blood cell count of 4. Last year his count was at 10.9. After meeting with many doctors and specialists, Mays has found that “The damage is irreversible.”

Residents of Flint continue to advocate for change. “I will never forget about the people we met in Flint and how much they cared about their city, and how much they were willing to sacrifice to protect their kids,” said Edwards, “I will never ever forget the heroism I saw.”

During her full work day Melissa Mays takes water calls from morning till night and attends water meetings, press conferences, and protests. She said that road salt made the Flint river even more caustic. Now that Flint has temporarily switched back to Detroit water, Mays and other activists are advocating for stronger enforcement of EPA laws, transparency about water issues, and making sure Flint citizens have access to medical help.“It’s not the end of the world, you just have to fight it. We’re not victims, so we’re gonna fight back and get the support we need,” said Mays. 

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About erherman

I am a sophomore at the University of MIchigan

One Response to “What made Flint’s water corrosive? Road salt, and it’s a problem across the country”

  1. This is such a relevant topic right now and is just another example of how flawed the system is. I love the the narrative and I am also curious to see how the May’s family is doing currently.

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