Bad Water in Flint Reveals Paths

Dr. John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Column of March 6,  2016,  Los Alamos Monitor

Image Political infamy has spread far and wide from the loading of lead in the drinking water of Flint,  Michigan. We know the story, at least in rough form.

As often happens, the problem began with a shortage of funds. The state appointed a special official to cut the city’s costs.  

In April 2014, the city of Flint switched to a cheaper source of drinking water,  namely,  the Flint River.  

The murky part is who gave warnings to whom and when. The murk extends to who botched the known methods of corrosion control used on river water to prevent leaching lead from old water pipes. So came the lead into the drinking water of Flint.  

People ask the question, “How could this happen?” And the answer comes back, “How could this happen?” Crowds of political analysts, and lawsuits, will uncover the political causes. Fewer eyes will look to find better remedies in the technical world.  

The technical world is but a fraction the size of politics, as we know from its name. The history of politics is reflected in the Greek word “politikos,” which refers to “townsman.” Indeed, politics is a task for all citizens.  

Nonetheless, the technical world itself is so large it divides into many parts. A new pathway worth pursuing is regulatory engineering, which means putting smart tools to regulatory use. 

The havoc in Flint helps explain regulatory engineering and shows one way it will do more good faster at less cost. Imagine a new smart tool that has a clever way to sample water, from which the tool reports the lead level. As smart tools do, the tool has sensing parts, computing parts and reporting parts.  

The tool must be reliable, but does not need ultimate accuracy. Try this idea: the tool might light one of three small lights—a green light (the lead level is okay to drink), a yellow light (stop, do a better test) or a red light (do not drink this water).  

Imagine similar tools that check the water for nitrates, which are around feedlots, or check water for hydrocarbons, which are around oil wells. Or imagine one smart tool that checks for all three.  

Think of the problems such tools can avoid or cut short. Think of the better human outcomes. Think of Flint and the time and money to be saved.  

Next, keep in mind another feature that is peculiar to smart tools. Smart tools at their core are as ready and willing to clear the good and innocent as to report the bad and guilty. Said differently, a smart tool has no preferred party or policies.  

How soon will new tools be doing quicker inspections? The speed of advances depends on beginning the work, how much work is put in, and who puts in the work. This is how the many smart tools already used in other fields came to fruition.  

Inventing more smart tools to check water requires skills in biological science, skills in sensors and instruments, and skills in devising software or special chips.  

These skills exist in a number of places. They may be found in three different companies who decide to work together. They may be in companies and university researchers who work together. These skills are also found in our town at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The skills are now busy in other projects of large consequence.  

Yet, the lab is known for innovations to strengthen national security. Creating a smart tool that gives quick reports on water safety also builds security.  

The story in Flint has endings yet to be told, in ways we cannot foresee. Markets grow from the seeds of problems.