After Flint’s Crisis, An Algorithm Helps Citizens Find Lead Pipes
It’s been nearly seven years since the beginning of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, when high levels of lead from corroded lead pipes led to water shortages and health issues for city residents. Since then, many other cities around the country have had their own problems with lead. Researchers estimate that millions of Americans are living with pipes that need to be replaced.
As Wired reported earlier this month, Toledo, Ohio is one of the latest cities trying to get ahead of its legacy of lead plumbing, with the help of an algorithm created by University of Michigan researchers. The model was originally created to help the city of Flint more quickly—and less expensively—target which homes were most likely to need their pipes replaced.
The same researchers are now working as a private company, called BlueConduit, to help other cities do the same work. And in Toledo, they’re working in close partnership with the city and community organizations.
Ira talks with University of Michigan professor and BlueConduit co-founder Eric Schwartz, and Alexis Smith of the nonprofit Freshwater Future, about the work ahead for Toledo, and why deploying an algorithm effectively depends on community trust and input.
Curious if your own water pipes contain lead? EPA-funded project Crowd The Tap has a free tutorial for finding your water service line—and determining the materials of your pipes. The organization’s mission is to ensure safe drinking water in the United States. By sharing what you observe, you can help identify areas for tap water testing and infrastructure replacement. Learn about your pipes, and how you can help at CrowdTheTap.org.
Former Michigan Governor, Other Officials Charged for Flint Water Crisis
In Flint, criminal and civil cases stemming from the city’s lead tainted drinking water crisis are converging this week. New criminal charges may be coming while many in Flint still question whether they will ever get justice. Nearly seven years ago, government leaders here pushed the button that switched the city of Flint’s drinking water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The intent was to save money. The result was a complete disaster.
Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, which then released lead and other contaminates into the city’s drinking water. Eighteen months later the water was switched back, but the damage was done. Blood lead levels soared in young children. People were forced to use bottled water for drinking and washing clothes. The city was forced to rip out thousands of old pipes.
While testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress in 2016, former Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the mistakes. “Local, state and federal officials, we all failed the families of Flint,” Snyder told a congressional committee. Snyder was not among the 15 state and local government officials who faced criminal charges for their handling of the crisis. Half of them pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for no jail time. And in 2019, Michigan’s new Attorney General dropped charges against the remaining defendants citing problems with the original investigation. The investigation seemed over.
Until Tuesday, when the Associated Press reported that several former government officials, including former Governor Snyder, would be facing new charges. If that happens, legal experts say it would be a difficult case for prosecutors.
Read more at sciencefriday.com.
How Soil Could Save The Planet
There’s a scene in the 2014 film Interstellar that imagines the hypothetical impact of climate change on Earth’s food system. The film takes place in a dystopian future where a global crop blight is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Corn is the last viable crop and dust storms threaten humanity’s survival.
But it’s not just science fiction. Scientists are warning that if we don’t adopt more sustainable farming practices we’ll deplete the soil of vital nutrients and actually accelerate climate change.
The Earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon—that’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. And the soil—in union with the plants that grow on and in it—may have an unlimited capacity to suck CO2 out of the air and store it underground.
Tom Newmark, founder of The Carbon Underground, joins Ira to discuss the potential of carbon sequestration through a farming technique called “regenerative agriculture.” And Diana Wall, professor of biology at Colorado State University, discusses the role microbes play in the carbon cycle.
President Biden Makes Immediate Changes To U.S. Science Policy
This week’s peaceful transition of power from one administration to another was a win for democracy, but it was also a win for science. Among his first acts in the Oval Office, President Biden signed executive orders allowing the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, and put the brakes on plans for the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge.
And there will be more policy changes to come, as the president considers signing a new set of orders designed to ramp up U.S. COVID vaccination efforts in the coming days and weeks.
Umair Irfan, staff reporter for Vox, discusses the major science policy news of the week. Plus, an update on new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and what scientists have discovered about coronavirus immunity.