Iron in drinking water may pose more health risks than federal water regulators currently acknowledge.

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, says that iron may have played a critical role in the Flint lead-contamination crisis, according to WWL-TV. 


Edwards helped uncover the severity of the lead crisis in Flint. He explained to WWL-TV how iron can have a negative impact on the water system. 

“[Iron] increases the leaching of lead into the water,” Edwards said. 

“While the iron itself won't likely make people sick, Edwards says high iron in the water can remove disinfectants like chlorine, allowing harmful bacteria to grow. Bacteria like legionella, which causes Legionnaire’s Disease. That's what Edwards said he believes may have happened in Flint,” the report said. 

Flint’s corroded underground iron pipes have long been a breeding ground for human pathogens.…Iron piping is not only failing due to corrosion but is increasingly associated with public health and safety issues.  

Like Flint, Burton was saddled with procurement specifications that were as antiquated as its iron water pipes and which effectively excluded any alternative solution or technology from the competitive bidding process.  Facing many of the same financial constraints that bedevil Flint, Burton Mayor Paula Zelenko petitioned and fought Genesee County for her city to be allowed to have a procurement process for pipe replacement that included competitive bidding.  Her plan to upgrade Burton’s water system predates the Flint fiasco.  The project, which began in June 2014, will, upon completion in 2019, have replaced 19 miles of corroded, dilapidated iron pipe with lead-free, non-corrosive PVC pipe at a cost $2.2 million lower than the nearest bidder.  

“I believe that responsible elected officials support open competition and the need for alternative products and materials in bidding processes for underground infrastructure. This is a fundamental right and responsibility of all municipal governments,” says Mayor Zelenko.

[L]ost in the finger-pointing is the role played by Michigan’s largest water utility and by antiquated municipal procurement procedures in both Flint and Detroit. Flint’s water system was a disaster waiting to happen, and Detroit’s decrepit iron piping network, fraught with health and safety issues of its own, helped spark the crisis. 

In the 2000s, corroding underground iron and ductile iron water pipes leaked more than 35 billion gallons of water each year, costing ratepayers served by DWSD more than $23 million annually, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

By 2009, the Water Finance Research Foundation estimated that Michigan faced $11.3 billion in costs associated with replacing its underground iron water pipes over the next 20 years. While many other states across the U.S. confronted similar challenges, DWSD continued to charge their higher-than-necessary rates by preventing the use of any corrosion-resistant alternative pipe material. Ductile iron pipes, manufactured with thinner walls and still subject to internal and external corrosion, were used to replace the thick old iron pipes at a significantly higher cost (30-50 percent) than alternative non-metallic pipe material.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors published a report in 2009 warning about the higher costs utilities will pay due to a lack of open competition in bidding on underground water infrastructure. It also pointed to major health issues associated with rusty pipes. 

Not only did the cash-strapped city after the switch fail to add anti-corrosion chemicals to keep its corroding iron pipes from leaching lead and contaminating its drinking water, it continued to maintain procurement specifications for underground piping that effectively exclude any alternative solution or technology from the competitive bidding process.

The water crisis in Flint has a lot of people wondering about the safety and quality of their own water. There are businesses in our area that can inspect your home plumbing. Pipe issues are common in the Upper Peninsula. The problem happens a lot in homes built before the 1970’s. 

John Fukey is with Tunnel Vision. He says,'If you talk to any of the local root cutters, they're very busy, they're making a good living because they're out there cutting away at roots all the time. Newer homes, you know 80's and later, actually into the 70's, have used pvc and that's God's gift to plumbing more or less. But, we look at a lot of homes from the forties, fifties, sixties.’

He says the older homes see more problems because of the lower quality of materials used to make pipes and pipe lining.

Latest examples:"The construction company is removing 4,000 feet of cast iron and steel main and replacing it with a pipe made of plastic polymer known as PVC….At the same time, 6-inch clay sewer pipes that run underneath side streets running east-west also is being replaced with 8-inch PVC. 'The clay pipes are brittle and starting to collapse,' said [Daniel] Rotter [engineering manager, Carson city Public Works]."

“'The existing 18-inch (diameter) clay pipe is more than 60 years old, and is deteriorating rapidly,' the city of Seguin said in a recent press release. 'It will be replaced with a 30-inch PVC pipe, which is lighter and more durable than clay. The larger diameter can handle higher volumes of wastewater.’….'The council was informed that the construction bid was about $80,000 under budget which will be held in reserves in case of any contingency expenses,' the city said."

"The threat of lead contamination often comes from within older homes, where aging fixtures threaten to leach lead into water long after it has passed through the city system. For people worried about the prospect of lead in their water – a particular concern for infants drinking formula – there are a few steps that can be taken to lessen the threat of drinking water contamination…. Replace aging pipes with copper or PVC (plastic)”

Dr. Bonner Cohen was recently interviewed about the Flint crisis on Jack Burkman’s Behind the Curtain.  Dr. Cohen cites a lack of open bidding for water piping as a key contributor to the Flint crisis and as a solution for its renewal.

Bonner Cohen, Ph.D. is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research and author of “Fixing America’s Crumbling Underground Water Infrastructure: Competitive Bidding Offers a Way Out,” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

(listen at 32:38)

"As the Flint water crisis hit, Burton Mayor Paula Zelenko, recognizing that rotting iron pipes, far behind their past due date, are a looming threat to the delivery of safe drinking water most anywhere in America, switched Burton’s aging iron pipes over to lead-free PVC ones, whose safe water delivery has proven to be dependable."

"His major concern was that cast iron pipe would not meet the project's stated goal of a 100-year lifespan. Cast iron pipes naturally corrode over time, but the process can be accelerated when exposed to different soil types, water or electricity. It's one of the reasons BART project specifications call specifically for PVC pipe. But the source also said a moderate earthquake could mean the pipes fail much faster because cast iron is brittle in comparison to flexible PVC pipes."

"Likewise for the Flint Farmers' Market, one of the city's revered public spaces, relocated last year to a former newspaper printing and distribution facility renovated by Shannon Easter White of FUNchitecture. The water main was replaced during construction of the printing plant, and all-new PVC and 56 three-compartment sinks supply water to seven restaurants and purveyors of prepared food, as well as to numerous fresh-produce vendors. ‘The market is lead-free and has always been; it tested free of contamination from the beginning of the crisis,’ White says. ‘All of the downtown restaurants—Hoffman's Deli down to Cork on Saginaw and Blackstone's Pub—are fine.’"

"The Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted in 1986, required the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for the concentration of lead in public pipes, with a push for ‘lead-free.’ This stirred the country on a road towards replacing old water pipes with PVC, as an eco-friendly alternative. However, many poorer municipalities, like St. Joseph, instead turned to anti-corrosive agents as a cheaper and faster solution."

"Tom Hagerty, director of public works in Waukegan, said municipalities have moved away from lead pipes to deliver water over the decades, with Waukegan installing PVC in recent years."

"‘It’s not an issue that would happen in our back yard,’ says SAWS CEO Robert Puente. He says SAWS pipes are not made of lead. The system instead uses PVC and galvanized pipes."

"Next door to Flint, the city of Burton – using the state of Michigan’s revolving fund for drinking water infrastructure projects – has likewise begun to replace its 1930s water mains, but with cheaper, non-corrosive, environmentally-friendly PVC pipes. The effort received an award from Genesee County in November."

"‘Flint is a cautionary tale,’ said Dan Brown, CEO of the Roanoke Rapids Sanitary District. ‘We hate to see them going through it.…We have PVC and unlined cast iron,’ Brown said. ‘The problems with Flint are lead service lines — the pipes between the mains and the buildings. … They’ve got a lot of metal lines.’ …. Halifax County’s system is fairly new, constructed in the late 1980s. ‘We’re fortunate that our system is relatively new,’ he said. ‘It’s not much of an issue for us.’"

"The powerful neurotoxin has invaded the water supply of Flint, Michigan, causing faucets to belch out yellow water, and causing many around the country to worry about their own drinking water. [Steve] Clause says San Antonians will likely never see that happen; that’s because the city, and many smaller towns around it, saw this coming decades ago. ‘Back in the 90’s we made a big push to remove all lead pipes from our system,’ Clause said. As a result, most of the water infrastructure in South Texas is made from more modern PVC or galvanized steel, materials that have fewer and less dangerous contaminants."

"Replacing high-capacity systems with another high-capacity system—as Flint is gearing up to do—doesn’t make sense, Marohn believes. ‘We’d be putting back the same failed systems that are just a millstone around cities’ necks,’ he tells CityLab. ‘They’re enormously expensive to maintain. We have to come up with some lighter touches.’ Marohn suggests that the parallel drinking water system could be made of PVC and copper, and that most of these pipes could be simply plowed several feet into the ground—no expensive, laborious trench-digging needed."

"The water crisis in Flint is a long ways away from Athabasca County, but the Aspen Regional Water Services Commission wants to assure people that the chances of contaminated water flowing through our pipes is unlikely. ‘There’s no lead pipes in the Aspen Regional Water Services Commission systems and very unlikely that there’s any in the respective municipalities,’ said Jamie Giberson, who works as the water treatment plant’s lead operator. The regional water system primarily uses polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes certified by the National Science Foundation."

"North Sioux City has no lead pipes in its water system, city administrator Ted Cherry said. ‘That's something that no city really wants to mess with, so it's nice not to have any in town,’ Cherry said. South Sioux City has few, if any, lead lines remaining, and those are likely service lines, [Bob] Livermore [South Sioux City public works director] said. ‘For the most part, we've gone to PVC,’ he said."