UI researcher finds connections to Flint water crisis

CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor speaks at a World Canvass event celebrating CGRER's 25th anniversary in 2015.
CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor speaks at a World Canvass event celebrating CGRER’s 25th anniversary in 2015.
KC McGinnis | February 26, 2016

News of the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan is leading researchers around the world to see if their communities might be susceptible to similar forms of contamination. Among them is UI Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor.

In a February perspective in the journal Science, Schnoor and researchers in the U.S. and western Europe offered their insights into the best ways to reduce tap water contaminants. Among their preliminary findings is that residual disinfectants like chlorine may not be necessary if sufficient infrastructural standards are already in place.

Chlorine, which was found to be successful in reducing microbial waterborne pathogens in water in the 1900s, has been known to cause bad taste in tap water — but its effects can be much more serious. Chlorine can react with naturally occurring organic matter to form chloroform, a likely carcinogen, and can even cause lead in older, lead-lined pipes to leach into drinking water.

In Switzerland, where Schnoor recently spent several months researching, municipalities can deliver drinking water without disinfectants like chlorine. They can do so as long as the water sources are protected and the water systems are adequately maintained. Replacing pipes at appropriate times has also decreased the need for residual disinfectants.

While disinfectants in water don’t seem to guarantee fewer outbreaks, Schnoor found that smaller groundwater systems that get infrequent use like those that can be found in parts of rural Iowa were responsible for most of the tap water disease outbreaks in the United States.

To see a summary of the article in the journal Science click here.

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