The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

by on January 23, 2016 at 11:46 am in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink

The disaster in Flint, Michigan is being treated as an aberration but Werner Troesken’s excellent book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster demonstrates that there is a history of such problems in the United States.

In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials.

Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects—particularly for pregnant women and young children—and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure—explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.

Full disclosure: Troesken was a colleague at GMU a few years ago around when this book was published.

1 Axa January 23, 2016 at 12:20 pm

It’s a curious thing that people blamed fluoride for all that. It’s an interesting case to study, conspiracy theories are harmless until they take away mental/social/economic resources from a real problem.

2 Bill January 23, 2016 at 12:30 pm

The most serious form of lead exposure is from the barrel of a gun, and government is very unlikely to do anything about that.

3 prior_test January 23, 2016 at 12:30 pm

‘The disaster in Flint, Michigan is being treated as an aberration’

Really? I thought it was considered fairly typical of how modern America is run – with utter disdain for public health based on science.

As for ‘lead pipes’ – more accurately, it tends to be lead solder during the 20th century, as lead was replaced by cast iron –

4 chuck martel January 23, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Typically, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Cast iron is used in drain, waste and vent lines, not water supply. Steel pipe was used for many years but has been replaced by copper and now plastic-type tubing. The only lead used in modern water supply was used in soldering the fittings, an incredibly small area is exposed to leach into the water. In any event, lead is no longer used in the solder, either.

5 Thor January 23, 2016 at 5:15 pm

But he’ll back down and maybe even post a correction or apology, right?

6 prior_test January 24, 2016 at 5:42 am

Well, it depends – I watched how a portion of the Fairfax County water system was built in the 70s, and it was pretty much cast iron pipe (with the work often by the company owned by the brother of Til Hazel, by the way). Houses from the 50s had copper pipes (with a silver colored solder – anyone venture to guess whether it also used lead, or the lead was replaced by antimony?). The townhouses from the later 70s had wretched plastic piping, to go along with their wretched aluminum wiring.

Steel is rarely black with a pebbly surface. But are we talking about a house’s own water supply, or are we talking about the mains supplying 500 houses? Because what was used for the mains (the cut off valves being the clue that these were not likely to be sewer lines) seemed to be cast iron back during the period that Fairfax was growing from a population of around 150,000 to over a million. Based on watching it be installed, that is, in neighborhoods like Surrey Square or Twinbrooke or along West Ox Road (from/to a FCWA water tank) or Comstock (near another major water tank, though possibly owned by Fairfax City, and not the county).

Obviously, I have no idea what is now used for mains in the thoroughly built out water system of Fairfax County.

And equally obviously, I may have been mistaken at what those work crews were installing decades ago.

It is always possible to be mistaken, a fact daily demonstrated at this web site.

7 chuck martel January 24, 2016 at 3:23 pm

“Steel is rarely black with a pebbly surface.”

Steel can be coated with a rust-proof surface treatment. Kind of like the paint on your Mercedes only not as attractive.

8 ZZZ January 24, 2016 at 6:39 pm

No, modern water distribution pipes are almost all cast iron, some of the larger mains are concrete, only household service lines use copper.

9 Joe blowsma January 25, 2016 at 3:47 am

Chuck Don’t be so sure of you knowledge of water and sewer materials. Yes, inside homes, cast iron was used only for waste pipe. but many cities did use cast iron for water mains particularly large diameter ones when pressures were lower. In some cities you can even find cast iron used for gas mains; And yes, lead in solder used for copper pipe was banned in 1986, But in older cities there still is a lot of lead pipe. The service line from the main in my street into the house is 1: inch lead. I had my water tested when My last child was born in 1988, Hardly any lead was detectable. The water utility keeps the ph balanced and lead gets covered with a thin lime-based scale. But if the water plant let the water become acidic, we would have a lot of problems here in st, Paul.

10 ZZZ January 24, 2016 at 6:55 pm

There are still plenty of old lead pipes in use in Flint, other sources of lead are from solder and brass fittings and fixtures.

11 Dan Weber January 23, 2016 at 1:16 pm

When I heard things like “Detroit was asking too high a price so Flint did it on their own,” I was extremely skeptical of claims Detroit was gouging.

Given recent financial troubles in Detroit, it’s certainly possible Detroit was was gouging.

But running a major water system is hard work. It takes a lot of long-term investments and requires serious adults in charge.

I remember new communities in Eastern Mass bitching about how much Boston charged to join their water system, but this is major physical plant stuff, and it’s easy to fuck up if you have you head up your ass. The surest way to make sure the system will fail is to allow new entrants to buy in on the cheap.

12 Benny Lava January 23, 2016 at 1:26 pm

I don’t doubt that Detroit was price gouging the suburban customers. When a significant number of Detroit customers don’t pay and the city can’t collect through the usual method (blocking real estate transfers) the city has to make up the difference somehow. This is the water department that employed a farrier that it could not fire even though it had no horses.

That said, in hindsight Detroit water seems like a bargain doesn’t it? Penny wise and pound foolish.

13 Dan Weber January 23, 2016 at 1:36 pm

What do you think the total price is of a municipal water system, per capita? Thousands of dollars? Tens of thousands?

Water is cheap because we’ve spent centuries building up its physical plant.

14 Benny Lava January 23, 2016 at 1:47 pm

We could calculate it out:

Add the three county population together as your denominator and the total cost of the system as the numerator. But I’m not sure what that has to do with Detroit price gouging.

15 Steve Sailer January 23, 2016 at 7:13 pm

The water main that William Mulholland famously (“Chinatown”) built to bring Owens River water to Los Angeles in 1915 runs near my house in the San Fernando Valley. It’s now leaking, and not likely to survive the next Big One earthquake. So the authorities have been digging up streets around my house to build a twin water main.

But they’ve been digging for about eight years. In contrast, it took Mulholland only about a year to get his original water main built using mules and picks.

Infrastructure these days is expensive.

16 Cererean January 23, 2016 at 1:41 pm

According to the link previous posted, Flint was planning to move to another supplier – at which Detroit decided to punish them.

17 Benny Lava January 23, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Could you forward that link? From what I read the city of Flint decided not to pursue Detroit water while their own pipeline was being built and went so far as to sell off the Detroit water pipeline so that reconnection would be difficult to pursue.

It is interesting to me how liberal are blaming the Republican governor and emergency manager, whilst conservatives are blaming the city of Detroit and the EPA. Neither one are blaming the Flint water department for insufficiently treating the river water. Why is that?

18 Dan Weber January 23, 2016 at 2:07 pm

Because “Flint water department” can’t be easily understood to be an obvious tool of either big party.

19 J Mann January 25, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Benny, here are some stories on the cancellation – if I’m understanding correctly, Detroit terminated the existing contract but was willing to supply water at a higher rate, one Flint was unwilling to pay. I’ve never found anything disclosing the rate.

20 Harun January 23, 2016 at 3:47 pm

They just needed to add some chemicals, phosphorus IIRC, and the total cost per year would have been $50k.

21 watermelonpunch January 24, 2016 at 10:26 am

What Cererean said is what I heard… I heard this story on the radio (as best I could remember, and I don’t remember what radio, maybe NPR)…
That what happened was that Flint announced its intent to build a new system of their own. They knew it would take a year or something to make the system, so their current water supplier (Detroit) said something like = well if you want to keep the water in the interim you have to pay a lot more for it. So at that point Flint had the state people managing the issue and either they couldn’t or wouldn’t negotiate the interim price, so they just then made the decision to switch immediately… without a proper plan in place obviously.
I’m sorry but I can’t find a published explanation of this, so I can’t actually say this is definitely what happened.

22 gunste January 24, 2016 at 2:43 pm

Any comments that use foul language should be deleted promptly.

23 J Mann January 25, 2016 at 3:36 pm

The stories I’ve read said that when Flint announced plans to leave the system, Detroit cancelled its contract with Flint as soon as legally possible, which left Flint with two years between when Detroit would turn off the water and when Flint would get water from the new source. At that point, depending on who you read “negotiations broke down” between Flint and Detroit to get the contract extended.

I think it’s fair to assume that Detroit was asking for a price increase as a condition of extending the contract (or else why terminate it?) and Flint was not willing to meet Detroit’s final offer (or else why not turn it back on). I haven’t seen any stories disclosing what Flint and Detroit’s final offers were.

24 Ray Lopez January 23, 2016 at 1:37 pm

I read Troesken’s book years ago and thought it was a bore; a layman masquerading as a doctor. However, I did learn a few things:

1) let your water flow for 20 to 60 seconds in the morning, and even with Pb in the water, you’ll be fine since lead leaches out of *standing* water in pipes. Once the water flows you’re fine

2) Lead was much more of a nuisance years ago, like 100 years ago, than now. Trokesken wrote numerous anecdotal stories to prove this.

3) DC adds chemicals in the water to precipitate Pb and bind it so it doesn’t move. Cheap and ‘effective’.

4) Buy bottled water if you can afford it.

25 Tamansky January 23, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Troesken’s thesis in ‘The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster’ doesn’t add up:

Nobody understood the dangers of lead poisoning in 19th/20th centuries America ???

Even if the danger was known, nobody anywhere was motivated to action ???
Well educated scientists, doctors and public officials across the nation were quite content to drink water from lead pipes, along with their children ?
New York City didn’t get serious about such catastrophic lead water pipes until 1992 ?

Troesken’s lead catastrophe seems way over-hyped– there should have been millions of casualties showing up if he’s correct — where are they?
If Troesken is correct, he’s extremely weak identifying the key issue of why it happened on such a vast scale.

More likely that lead water pipes just ain’t that dangerous. I grew up with them along with my entire city — never heard of any instances of lead poisoning (musta been a very effective conspiracy)

26 Ray Lopez January 23, 2016 at 5:49 pm

+1 to Tamansky. Indeed that was annoying in Troesken’s book, the thesis of ‘proving’ Pb in H2O was a health risk was over-harped. In fairness to Troesken however, it’s like mosquitoes causing tropical diseases like malaria or Yellow Fever: for a long while people suspected the insect was a vector but it was not ‘proven’ until various scientists like Walter Reid et al used the Scientific Method.

27 Mark January 23, 2016 at 6:29 pm

Over time, lead pipes build up a coating of lead oxide which prevents lead from getting into the water.

Which works great, until acidic water corrodes the lead oxide layer and exposes the pipes.

It’s why flushing doesn’t help here … main lines are excreting lead.

28 Steve Sailer January 23, 2016 at 7:07 pm

“Nobody understood the dangers of lead poisoning in 19th/20th centuries America ???”

In one scene in the 1930s novel “Studs Lonigan,” working class Chicago youths debate whether the high pay that house painters earn is worth the brain damage from the lead paint.

So, by a long time ago, some of the dangers of lead had penetrated down to the popular level.

But lead poisoning is a complicated topic and it’s hard to get a clear picture of all the potential sources and their relative dangers.

29 derrida derider January 26, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Yes, but it took until 1978 for lead to be banned from household paint in the US – literally decades after other developed countries had done so. Why? It is a matter of record. Intense industry lobbying, complete with astroturf front organisations, “public health information campaigns”, etc – the full panoply of FUD that the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry and the fossil fuel industry employed and employs. Some pinko doctor spent his life fighting it and was therefore subject to chronic smearing of the sort that still happens to anyone suggesting health and environmental regulation might be sensible rather than a gratuitous infringement on liberty and the rights of property – see

Lead poisoning in adults has been well understood since the nineteenth century; I’ve got a great grandfather who had to give up working in a silver mine because of it (he eventually died of a different form of lead poisoning – in WW1). What wasn’t understood in Studs Lonigan’s time was what lead does is in far smaller doses to foetuses and small children. It is a lot harder to detect that someone has eventually grown up with 20 less IQ points than they would otherwise have had than to detect acute onset of gross brain damage in adults.

30 dearieme January 23, 2016 at 7:22 pm

If you change your source of water but plan to run the new water through old pipes, you need to have a water chemist on the job. It defeats me how they could fail to do so. I learnt this sort of stuff at secondary school.

31 bellisaurius January 23, 2016 at 9:25 pm

Given that this is my field, I definitely came away with one lesson: I’m not f*cking with our current corrosion control. Too many moving parts to be able to predict anything fully,

32 prior_test January 24, 2016 at 5:25 am

‘I learnt this sort of stuff at secondary school.’

Americans no longer have faith in the results that science provides, nor any interest in putting in the work that science requires. They prefer believing that the free market or God will make sure everything goes the way it should, while ensuring that as little money as possible goes to educating the next generation.

This happened just a quarter of a year ago at one of America’s best high schools. Note that this school had been renovated recently, and that there were two teachers, not one, in the classroom –

‘A chemistry demonstration at a Fairfax County high school went out of control Friday morning, with a flash of flame engulfing a group of students, leaving two with serious burns and also sending three others to the hospital.

The blaze at W.T. Woodson High School sent students scrambling as smoke and screams burst from a classroom and a teacher went running down the hall, her shirt still on fire. Helicopters and ambulances swooped onto the campus, and students spent much of the morning huddling together on the football field’s bleachers while ventilation fans cleared chemical-laden air from the school.

The incident began 10 minutes into second period, when a chemistry teacher poured flammable liquid onto a desk and lit it with a Bunsen burner, according to several students who said they were in the class. The teacher then introduced chemical elements, such as copper, to demonstrate their different effects on the colors of the flames — a well-known, captivating yet sometimes-risky experiment.

As the flame appeared to die down, the teacher poured more liquid onto the table, students said, causing a “splash of fire” to hit those nearby. One student said the teacher was not wearing any protective gear, nor were the students in the room, including those closest to the experiment.’

As a former student at WTW from the late 70s, this is utterly unimaginable, from the lack of even the most basic saftey procedures (a crowd of people around a desk with open flame, and pouring more flammable liquid with an active source of ignition, were absolutely forbidden) or equipment (goggles were mandatory with open flame, as one example, and we all were taught how to deal with a fire by using the recently introduced gel blankets), and where are fume hoods or emergency fan exhaust? That our labs were fairly good when built in the early 60s though inadequate decades later is unsurprising – but that the extensive renovations seem to have left a lab in worse condition than what we used is incredible to imagine.

And yet, welcome to modern American chemistry education at a premier high school –

It would be a farce except for the two students requiring treatment in a specialized burn clinic setting.

33 Art Deco January 24, 2016 at 7:49 am

Cheap bastard. Woody Allen paid for his psychoanalysis and did not expect strangers to listen to him free associate for free.

34 prior_test January 24, 2016 at 10:33 am

I guess you missed this bit from dearieme – ‘I learnt this sort of stuff at secondary school’

I just posted a link to what American high schoolers learn at the same school district (and likely the same school) where Prof. Cowen’s child went, as dearieme is apparently a physical scientist.

My biochemist daughter could not believe that article, by the way, either (her critiques ranged from the unbeliavable breaches in safety procedures to the uselessness of actually learning decent lab technique from such a demonstration) – it is really shocking to see such standards in today’s America in a rich school district. But then, today’s America is the sort of place seems incapable of keeping lead out of a municipality’s water supply – and as noted in my first comment, failures of such basic infrastructure in the U.S. are not an aberration at this point, they are reality.

Welcome to a situation that far too many Americans seem incapable of analyzing, it must be noted. And one that a UK citizen cannot believe, either.

35 chuck martel January 24, 2016 at 11:38 am

“They prefer believing that the free market or God will make sure everything goes the way it should,”

No, they assume that some altruistic government agency is in control of the situation. Thus it’s the fault of George W. Bush if low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast are inundated by a powerful storm. Is BHO being blamed for the nation’s lack of preparation for the “Blizzard of ’16”? Shouldn’t he have issued an executive order forbidding tractor-trailers on I-95?

36 chuck martel January 24, 2016 at 11:41 am

A single bizarre incident is a crushing indictment of the US educational system that was designed and is operated at incredible expense by ultra-progressives who never have enough money, even though that money is in large part budgeted by the parents of the students.

37 J Mann January 25, 2016 at 3:41 pm

Prior_Test’s story is a little confusion. If I understand correctly, she posits that Americans no longer believe in science, only the “free market.” Her evidence for this proposition is that a high school teacher messed up an experiment, but I’m not clear why people are doing experiments if they don’t believe in science. Doesn’t the existence of a science teacher, a science class, and science experiments suggest that these Americans believe that science exists?

Is it like Idiocracy or something? Are teachers just sitting around saying:

“Hey, Earl, whudda think would happen if I poured this orange stuff into the blue stuff? Huhr huhr hurh!”

“I dunno Sally but go ahead – the free market will make sure it works out right?”

38 Viking January 23, 2016 at 9:40 pm

Any betting odds on whether POTUS will tell the truth to the Flint water department staff: “You didn’t build this!”?

39 run75441 January 24, 2016 at 7:00 am

On Detroit:

The City of Flint and its elected officials did not make the decision to move to Flint River water. The state of Michigan and its appointed Emergency Managers made the decision to switch Flint from Detroit lake water to Flint River water. At no time did the elected officials of Flint have the power to switch Flint to Flint River water. The Governor Snyder appointed Emergency Managers replaced the elected officials.

The cost to fix the corrosive water was a few hundred dollars a month. No effort was made by the Emergency Managers to negotiate with Detroit. The State of Michigan from Governor Snyder on down to Michigan’s DEQ ignored the evidence of lead contaminated water for almost 2 years. Flint residents still have to pay for the State of Michigan contaminated water.

40 Art Deco January 24, 2016 at 7:48 am

No, the city council made the decision, which was approved by the emergency manager.

41 Dallas Weaver Ph.D. January 24, 2016 at 12:48 pm

This whole situation points to the need for scientists to hold great decision-making power. The resulting catastrophe is an example of technological and scientific illiteracy on the part of the decision-making bureaucrats and politicians. Both Detroit and Flint’s river water (after basic treatment) meet all bureaucratic standards for totally potable water. However, water chemistry scientists would understand the corrosive or protective action of water on lead pipes. The buildup of calcium coating the interior of the led pipes and thus keeping the lead out of solution is related to the amount of calcium in the input water (hardness), the alkalinity of the water and the amount of carbon dioxide in the water, along with the water temperature. All four variables interact through very complex set of equations relating the solubility of CaCO3 (limestone). The water will either coat the pipes with a protective film or dissolve the protective film that has already been laid down. Phosphates and chloroamines further complicate the situation. But these interactions are known and calculable by scientists with the knowledge and background.

Having lawyers and activists in key positions (EPA, state DEQ, etc.) under equally scientific illiterate politicians results in them being surprised that the lead didn’t disappear when they switched back to Detroit water. Not only had the protective build been one of decades, the lower water temperatures (due to shifting back to Detroit water in the fall/winter) increased the solubility of the CaCO3 and did not replace the coating which had kept the lead from dissolving in the water. Detroit water will result in an eventual re-lining of the lead pipes, but this will take time and warmer water.

Of course, the tendency of lawyers and politicians to believe the advisers that give them the answers they want combined with their lack of knowledge, means that they really don’t know which “claimed experts” are actually giving them the correct answers. They have no basis for making a rational decision.

PS: Minor changes in either water supply would have solved the problem, but the details of how the changes are actually done is highly relevant. Adding the same chemicals in the wrong order or mixing speed can impact effectiveness.

42 ZZZ January 24, 2016 at 7:08 pm

The “scientists,” actually water treatment officials and the DEQ, were the ones who failed to treat the water effectively and falsified the test results that would have shown them to be doing a bad job. If anything this episode shows that concentrating power among any group, even scientists, will result in bad outcomes.

43 Cooper January 25, 2016 at 1:21 pm

I see an estimate floated around that the cost to get Flint’s water network up to modern standards is $1.5 billion. Given what we know about government projects, this is probably a low estimate.

The typical Flint home is worth $40,000 and there are only about 40,000 occupied houses in the city. Typical property taxes paid are about $1,500/house.

The per capita income of the city is only $15,000. That is lower in *nominal* terms than it was in 2000.

The city just doesn’t generate enough wealth to maintain a first world standard of living. It will require ongoing massive subsidies, forever.

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