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Could New Technology Help Resolve New Jersey’s Lead in Drinking Water Issue?

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Gary Brune, Senior Policy Advisor

Through sustained advocacy at the state and community levels, New Jersey aims to be a national leader in protecting the public from exposure to lead, a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to young children. In July 2021, New Jersey enacted landmark legislation (P.L.2021, c.183) requiring that all lead service lines (LSLs) be replaced within 10 years, which is easily the nation’s most aggressive compliance deadline. Given its aging housing stock, the state is generally thought to have the fifth highest number of LSLs (350,000), however many water utilities lack comprehensive, accurate records pinpointing where the LSLs are located. Meanwhile, lead testing continues to be done the old-fashioned way, with a limited set of samples shipped to laboratories for analysis, a process that inhibits public awareness and the broader detection of lead hotspots. Could new technology make a difference and, if so, what new solutions are available?

The good news is that numerous efforts are underway, and several hold great promise for improving effectiveness and efficiency. With a concerted effort, the initiatives outlined below could make a meaningful difference.

“Pipe Farm” Research  –  Identifying Lead Service Lines

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that lead service lines account for up to 60% of the total exposure to lead in drinking water, but when it comes to locating LSLs there is considerable work to be done. Many service lines were installed prior to the computer age, and the related inventory records, many of which exist in paper form, are often incomplete or inaccurate. Service line ownership in New Jersey is typically bi-furcated, with a portion owned by the utility and a portion by the homeowner, and knowledge is particularly sparse about the composition of the lines owned by the latter. Confirmation often requires excavation and a visual check, which is expensive (e.g., $700 per line) and time-consuming. With over 1 million service lines in New Jersey being of “unknown composition,” progress in identifying LSLs more efficiently could accelerate the pace of LSL replacement and avoid considerable costs.¹

In a unique collaboration, the nonprofit Cleveland Water Alliance, which promotes water-related research and innovation, as well as the Cleveland Division of Water and five other water utilities (i.e., investor-owned Aqua Ohio and municipal water utilities in Cincinnati, Akron, Conneaut and Sandusky) issued a national challenge to innovators in the spring of 2021: can LSLs be detected without excavation and without accessing private property? 

To form a “pipe farm” proving ground, a series of copper, plastic, galvanized, and lead service lines were randomly buried beneath city property in Parma Heights, Ohio and overlaid with a variety of ground cover (e.g.,  dirt, concrete, gravel) to mimic actual field conditions. Beginning in late 2022, innovators will run tests without knowing what pipe materials they are testing for. Relative success, which is based on each system’s ability to differentiate pipe types at an accuracy rate of 90% or more, will be judged by a panel of utility experts.

Potential technologies include acoustics (i.e., distinct sounds from different metals), microwaves, x-ray diffraction/fluorescence, and electrical resistance.  When selected later in 2022, the most promising technologies could qualify for cash prizes of up to $20,000 from the Alliance, as well as potential follow-up grants to move from concept to actual test-ready technology.

Rapid Detection of Lead in Tap Water

Researchers at the University of Houston have created an inexpensive system using a smartphone and a lens made with an inkjet printer that can rapidly detect lead in tap water at levels commonly accepted as dangerous.  Smartphone nano-colorimetry can be used by individual citizens to examine lead content in drinking water on-demand in virtually any environmental setting. This system, which is portable and easy to operate, detects lead concentrations at 5 parts per billion in tap water. (The current federal standard is 15 ppb). 

In a separate effort funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a new portable device called NanoAquaSense can detect lead in tap water in real time. Rather than relying on costly and time-consuming lab tests, the device can be used in the home without any training and can detect lead as low as 0.2 parts per billion. The long-term vision is to integrate the technology within drinking water infrastructure systems to continuously monitor a variety of toxic contaminants on a larger scale.

This Beer Yeast is For You –  Filtering Lead from Drinking Water

New research published by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms in June 2022, concludes that inactive yeast, the most common form of waste from producing alcohol, can filter out lead from drinking water and provide an inexpensive, abundant purification material while reducing the disposal waste stream. The process of biosorption, in which inactive biological material is used to remove heavy metals from water, has been known for a few decades, however MIT’s study indicates that it can work at much lower concentrations that are key for preventing lead exposure. In fact, a single gram of inactive, dried yeast cells can remove up to 12 milligrams of lead in five minutes or less.

Since lead does not biodegrade, but rather accumulates over time, this potential solution is particularly relevant for countries with high levels of lead in the environment that employ expensive conventional treatment (e.g., groundwater levels can reach hundreds of parts per billion in South America.) In the U.S., inactive beer yeast ultimately could provide a sustainable, cheaper alternative to the chemicals currently used in the corrosion control treatment that water utilities use to limit the leaching of lead into drinking water. More broadly, it could also help address more than 12,000 miles of U.S. waterways affected by acidic water due to metals from electronic waste and mineral emissions.  

The next key step will be to create a filter that will permit the process to be scaled up, separating out lead and heavy metals while retrieving both the water and the yeast to reuse. That filter will have applications in numerous markets where lead elimination is vital, including municipal and industrial water treatment systems and household water purification systems (i.e., at the tap)​.

¹ NJ Department of Environmental Protection service line inventory report.

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