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The Flint Water Crisis In America

Most of America knows the Flint water crisis of the last four years has become quite the epidemic and the more we learn the worse things seem to become. Since the discovery of discolored water in peoples tap water we’ve found out a lot of the affects switching to the Flint River had on the residents of Flint. Not only do people have to cope without being able to use their own taps in their homes and having to get water by other means, they have also found they are generally stuck dealing with the health side effects of the crisis on their own as well. Lead which seeped into the water supply is an extremely toxic metal, it can sicken people of all ages, but young children are even more susceptible to it.

According to the World Health Organization “Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time” with this being such a threat to our health it is unsettling to know so many people in flint, including children, were affected. Not only were people not allowed to use their taps for drinking water or making food but the risk of exposure did not end there, people who bathed in the water could have been affected in that way as well, the evaporating tainted water could have made its way into people’s lungs, it is not unreasonable to expect this happened to so many people before what they realized what was happening.

Until now the only thing that has really been done to help those who could not afford to help themselves was to provide bottled water, which as a short-term solution was undeniably very helpful to residents who had no other options. This cannot be a permanent solution however and even the filters which claim to filter the lead out of water were not only very expensive and hard for residents to justify purchasing but they were known to collect bacteria. Residents who could afford it could buy filters and use them if they liked, or a more expensive alternative was to have the lead piping replaced leading into their homes. While this could be a more permanent solution, it is extremely costly to do for every resident in flint and would require lots of state funding considering residents would not be able to cough up the money.

For my paper I focused my research on finding innovative solutions. Solutions that have been often overlooked, not given the exposure it deserves, or is not generally as popular as others. Countless people who were unfamiliar with the crisis thought the simple solution would be just to switch Flints water supply back to the Detroit water system like it had before, but this is simply not that easy. The damage has already been done, the lead pipes have irreversibly been corroded and must be dealt with. For the duration of my paper I’ll be covering the three solutions I found in my research that seem to be the most likely and possible.The first solution I came across was one thought up by a 12-year-old girl.

Over the past months this solution has produced a following and quite a bit of attention. She continues improve and continue working on her invention and this could end up being the real deal. This young genius goes by the name Gitanjali Rao and she’s developed a portable water testing kit which you can use to test for lead levels anywhere. She calls her device Tethys and believes it could be a great alternative to home testing which is not the most accurate, while it does only cost around $10 – $30, or if you wanted to receive more accurate results you could have your water sampled and tested in labs this method while being accurate is on the rather pricey end as well as being very time consuming, it can cost upwards of a hundred dollars to send your water in to be tested.

Gitanjali hopes that her device “Tethys” can provide affordable, accurate, and convenient testing capabilities expecting the cost to be near $20 it’s around the same price as a at home test kit, and with a small footprint it is about the size of an energy drink can. What enables Rao’s invention to be so advanced and revolutionary is the tech she has put behind it. The devices utilizes “carbon nanotubes, microscopic cylindrical structures that have a range of unusual properties and innovative applications” she got the idea from an MIT project which uses them to detect harmful gases in the air. To detect the lead a carbon nanotube sensor is employed with the addition of special atoms that react to lead and give the device a reading of when lead is present. On top of all that she developed an app for your smart phone which wirelessly connects to Tethys and displays the results of your test on your smart phone telling you if the water is safe to drink or if you should be cautious in using it.

My second solution is one I had no idea about prior to studying it, and I assume most people are strangers to the idea as well. At first when I read about the plants possibly being the solution I didn’t know what to think, but upon further investigating I came across a small article explaining how researchers at Riken Center for Sustainable Resources in Japan have found a type of moss that can absorb large amounts of lead in water. This Moss is called Furina hygrometrica, or F. hygrometrica, and it is known to grow especially well in sites contaminated with metals like lead and others.

According to researchers “phytoremediation is a method that uses photosynthesizing organisms to clean up soil or water contamination. The CSRS researchers began their search for a phytoremediation-based removal method by looking at F. hygrometrica” (Riken 1) they chose to start their studies with this plant because it is known to thrive in areas with higher levels of metals like copper, zinc, and lead. In some of their testing researchers found astonishingly that “the team first prepared solutions with varying concentrations of 15 different metals and exposed them to F. hygrometrica protonema. After 22 hours of exposure, mass-spectrometer analysis showed that the moss cells had absorbed lead up to 74% of their dry weight, which is quite high and much higher than any of the other metals.” (Riken 1)

Additionally with further experimentation and testing they saw that even after being removed from the living moss it could still absorb lead. This breakthrough could surely be a possible solution. A sure-fire way of using the moss has not been discussed yet to most effectively use it to remove lead but with more researchers and trials being done currently this special moss could be an organic solution to Flint’s water crisis.Now for the last of my solutions I found, and possibly my favorite, is one a high school student developed, and I thought it was so interesting not only due to the possibilities but that there are really kids out there doing this kind of research on their own. Michal Ruprecht is a student at Grosse Pointe North High School who researched green chemistry. Through his research he discovered what could be the fix to Flint’s water crisis by creating what is known as a Ligand. A Ligand is “an ion or molecule attached to a metal atom by coordinate bonding” which means it can be put in water after being developed for a certain task like bonding to lead. so, once it is mixed in the water, specialized ligands will bond with lead which can allow us to remove it from the water.

Another way to describe what a ligand does is to think of it like a claw, it is specially designed to pick up other atoms. Not much professional scale research has been done yet involving the use of ligands to remove lead, but Michal does plan to continue his research and possibly run tests by working with waste water treatment facilities to get ahold of tainted water to run his tests on. Now that I have stated my findings id like to give my opinion on some of these solutions to the problem so many people are facing, and that is not exclusively concerning Flint, but people all over the world who are affected by lead tainted water. For starters I do think that the best solution I’ve come across is not listed in my paper, but it is just to simply replace the lead piping which was affected and corroded. I believe this is the most effective long-term solution to the crisis, but it is by far one of the most expensive and one of the things that will take the longest.

Additionally aside from the Tethys, portable water testing device, I do not have a price estimate as to how much this research and development for new strategies will cost but I what I do know is, that once a these are further along their stage of development and able to be used to complete their intended task I think they will have more versatile roles than just being used on our Flint water crisis and they can also be adapted to solve other crisis in the future. As far as short-term fixes go, the Tethys is not going to solve the issue, but it can be a tool used by residents to help stay safe and avoid excess damage to their lives. Research with regards to the Ligands and F. hygrometrica (lead absorbing moss) is still being conducted and can potentially be used in the future.

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