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By Sarah Blau
It starts off sounding like a bad riddle: you cannot see it, smell it or taste it, and boiling it in water will not get rid of it. But then the riddle turns serious: it can cause high blood pressure, kidney problems, even cancer in adults, and can delay childhood physical or mental development. The answer to this grim riddle: lead.
I had heard about threats posed by lead from paint chips and dust in older houses, but not until recently was I aware lead is a common contaminant of drinking water. Although the main sources of exposure to lead are ingesting paint chips and inhaling dust, EPA estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water. As other sources of lead exposure are reduced, the percentage from drinking water is expected to rise.
Luckily, EPA scientists became aware of this health threat long before I did. In fact, EPA scientist Michael Schock recently received the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) most prestigious research award, the A.P. Black Award, for his years of research contributing to the understanding, treatment, and prevention of lead in our nation’s drinking water.
Schock began his scientific studies in the field of geology with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the subject. In 1978 he learned EPA was looking for a technician to work on lead problems in New England. Schock applied and got the job. In an AWWA interview he reflects on the team of scientists and staff involved in the drinking water research when he started out, “their enthusiasm and dedication to researching and solving health-related water quality problems was highly contagious.” Schock has now been with EPA for over 26 years.
The prevalence of lead in drinking water has to do with corrosion in the lead-containing materials that make up many water distribution systems. Researching problems with lead in drinking water allowed Schock to use his knowledge of geology in an unusual way. He told AWWA, “corrosion is really geochemistry with just different oxidants and a shorter timeframe.”
During his time with EPA, Schock researched and contributed to multiple publications on properties of lead corrosion as well as how to holistically treat and control water distribution systems suffering from the corrosion of lead, copper and other materials.
When asked about the importance of his research, Schock told AWWA, “I think the biggest reward is knowing we have provided insight that enables a health problem to be solved and future problems to be anticipated and prevented.” Now that’s a much better answer to the lead riddle.
About the author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication Team.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.