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Controlling Lead Spread in Drinking Water Supplies

Even though lead water pipes were banned in the US several decades ago, they are still used in water distribution networks that supply drinking water to millions of households across the country. Corrosion of these aging lead pipes risks leaching lead into the water supply, putting children at risk of neurological and developmental disorders resulting from exposure to this hazardous contaminant.

The commonly proposed solution of digging up these old lead pipelines and replacing sections of them with pipes made from other metals, for example copper, risks dislodging lead particles from the walls of the pipes and releasing them into the drinking water supply. Also, replacing only a portion of the lead pipes connecting a home to the water mains instead of exchanging the connection entirely poses a further risk of lead contamination.

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Now, in an effort to maintain a safe drinking water supply, a team of water engineers from Washington University in St. Louis have developed a modeling tool that allows water technicians to track the path along which lead particles may be carried when water pipes are partially replaced in the supply line.

"We all know lead is not safe, it needs to go," said Assistant Vice Chancellor of International Programs Pratim Biswas, the Lucy and Stanley Lopata Professor and the chair of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science. "This is the first comprehensive model that works as a tool to help drinking-water utility companies and others to predict the outcome of an action. If they have the necessary information of a potential action, they can run this model and it can advise them on how best to proceed with a pipe replacement to ensure there are no adverse effects."

The study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, the authors outline how their model is able to predict how far particles of lead and other dissolved substances might travel along the pipeline after they have been disturbed. Expanding on water-quality computer models they had developed for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier, Biswas and his research team developed a new model that is able to predict the release of lead particulates while taking factors such as the age and the dimensions of the pipe, patterns of water usage, water chemistry, as well as any previous disturbances to the water pipe.

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After running several computer simulations to test their predictions, Biswas and his colleagues are now ready to make the model more widely available so that water utilities and even water consumers can make use of the tool. According to Biswas, a water utility can enter information pertaining to their water distribution system and receive recommendations as to how to proceed with a partial pipe replacement without compromising drinking water quality.

The researchers have also developed a number of other models related to drinking water quality in water distribution networks, including models that enable utilities to accurately predict the concentration of disinfectants used in the water treatment process along the water distribution network, particularly in systems where there are dead-ends. They plan to make these models available for water utilities to download so that they can receive recommendations that will help them make decisions to ensure that the drinking water they supply to their consumers is safe to drink.

All Berkey systems equipped with the black berkey filters will remove lead from the water.

Journal Reference

Ahmed A. Abokifa and Pratim Biswas. Modeling Soluble and Particulate Lead Release into Drinking Water from Full and Partially Replaced Lead Service Lines. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2017, 51 (6), pp 3318–3326 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b04994

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