Pipelines: Water Quality Across the United States

Lead has been in the news quite a lot lately. The toxic metal has been appearing in EPA reports across the nation, and the crisis in Flint has attracted national interest to the state of American infrastructure.

Why Flint Happened

The lead contamination in Flint’s water supply was due to a number of factors, including:

  • Impoverished state of town requiring money-saving measures (41 percent of the town’s population lives below the poverty line)
  • High prices for Lake Huron water purchased through Detroit
  • Switch to Flint River water, which laced existing pipelines with lead

Flint effectively destroyed its pipeline system beginning in April 2014, and by the time officials noticed the effects, it was too late. Now, complete overhaul of Flint’s pipes could cost the federal government roughly $300 billion.

Nationwide Implications

With the crisis in Flint resonating across the country, public attention has been placed squarely on the condition of American water pipelines. The 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the nation’s drinking water a D, attributing the low grade to factors including:

  • An estimated 240,000 main water breaks every year
  • A large number of American water pipes are 100 years old or older
  • Useful lifetime of drinking water systems ranges from 15 to 95 years, with the oldest pipeline networks dating back to the Civil War Era

According to the report, an extensive replacement of all outdated water pipelines in the country would cost over $1 trillion. Additionally, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, lead was considered a superior building material for pipelines of any type, including those for drinking water. Doctors raised no objection at the time, while it is estimated more than half of all water pipes in American cities laid down at that time were lead.

Growing Concern

Suspicions over drinking water have understandably grown in cities across the nation. In Morristown New Jersey, a hospital’s tap water was measured at 22 times the federal limit for lead. In Ithaca New York, ongoing investigations have been underway for recent reports of lead elevations in the city’s school districts.

The issue of clean drinking water is not just Flint’s problem. It’s a federal problem that requires nationwide attention if the systems are to be restored to acceptable standards.


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