Sina-cism: In crises from ancient Rome to Flint, it’s not only water that’s dirty

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When it comes to drinking water, almost everything we think we know turns out to be not quite so.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

Americans spend more than $12 billion annually [estimates vary but this seems about right] on bottled water in the belief it is more healthful than tap water. In fact, they are paying hundreds of times more than necessary for a product no better than tap water, and contributing billions of plastic bottles to our environment.

[Editor’s note: See the effect on oceans with phenomena such as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is estimated to be 80 percent plastics and is harmful to sea life.]

For the last 30 years, thanks to a 1983 thesis by geochemist Jerome Nrigau, many have believed lead poisoning led to the fall of Rome. But a 2014 study of sediments from an ancient Roman port found that while lead levels were high, they were not responsible for the fall of the empire. Poor maintenance of aqueducts was a bigger factor.

And if we believe some pundits, the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where elevated lead has poisoned hundreds [some say thousands] is the product of corporate greed, political callousness and racism.

Water crises have as much to do with what -- and especially who -- is around the water as they do what's in it ...

Wikimedia Commons

Water crises have as much to do with what — and especially who — is around the water as they do what’s in it …

The harm is real, but the true causes are criminal negligence and bureaucratic ineptitude by local, state and federal officials.


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These three examples can be formed into a three-part, overarching principle: Public water supplies, properly maintained and honestly administered, are a cornerstone of civilization; they must be protected by good science; and those who protect them held accountable by good science.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen. Beginning in 2001, in Washington, D.C., some 15,000 homes were found to have elevated lead levels in drinking water, and thousands of children were harmed. But the cause of the problem – the decision by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) to switch treatment chemicals – pales in comparison to the political errors and misconduct.

Investigations showed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knowingly used flawed data in a 2004 report. And WASA first fired a whistleblower, and then waited too long to inform residents of the danger.

In Flint, the proximate cause was the decision in April 2014 to switch water sources from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River, in the hopes of saving $5 million over two years – surely a good thing.

But residents soon complained about the color and taste of their water. And beyond: many were complaining of rashes and hair loss, and of vision and memory problems. Officials had failed to properly treat the river water, which corroded the pipes and leached lead.

Over the next two years, officials with EPA’s Region 5, the city of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) misled and lied to themselves, one another, and the public, until an unfortunate-but-correctable error had become a public-health crisis, with firings, resignations, criminal prosecutions, and remediation costs that could reach $1.5 billion.

A reflection on both crises, told by a key player, Virginia Tech civil engineer Marc Edwards, is in the current American Scientist.


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Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vermont

Wikimedia Commons

Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vermont


It’s easy to blame lead pipes for the water woes in Washington, Flint, and so many other cities, and the reaction to these crises is understandable.

Worcester plans to test the water in its schools this summer, to be sure it is safe. That’s prudent, and it’s instructive to note the testing will be paid for through the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust, an independent state agency established in 1989 to develop and finance water infrastructure projects.

The agency is funded by the EPA and state matching funds, issues bonds, and has loaned over $6 billion to some 300 borrowers over a quarter century.

That’s a real government success story, and along with it we in Massachusetts are fortunate to have so many dedicated men and women who are water workers – the water quality scientists at the Department of Environmental Protection, those employed by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and those who work for municipal and private water and sewer systems.

That’s not to say that major water problems can’t happen in Massachusetts.

They have, they do, and they will, from lead pipes and toxic spills, to bacteria, waste and development. But given resources and modestly competent administration, such problems are manageable, and our water should remain safe.

It’s when human nature’s darker side emerges that we must worry. Time and again, the culprit in water crises isn’t the pipes or infrastructure per se, but those responsible for overseeing that infrastructure, carrying out tests, and releasing results to the public in clear, timely, and honest fashion.

We in Massachusetts are lucky, but we must remain vigilant, doing all we can to ensure the soundness and good governance of public and private water systems. More than our common wealth, they are the basis of our civilization.

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