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Millions still get water from hazardous lead pipes. Is AI the key to removing them?

Crews in Detroit are working to identify and remove lead water lines in neighborhoods (Photo: Alex Brauer){p}{/p}
Crews in Detroit are working to identify and remove lead water lines in neighborhoods (Photo: Alex Brauer)

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DETROIT (TND) — The health impacts of lead in drinking water are well known. But nearly a decade after the Flint, Michigan water crisis raised alarms about contamination, there are still millions of lead pipes delivering water to families throughout the U.S.

Some might ask why they haven't been removed and replaced with safer material. The problem is many cities and towns have no idea exactly where the lead pipes are buried. Now, a startup company is stepping in with a solution: using artificial intelligence, or AI to track them down.

Crews across America are receiving a similar mission: dig up lead water lines and replace them with copper to protect the health of American families.

It's a tedious job, requiring heavy equipment, hard work, and large crews. Spotlight on America went along with a crew in Detroit as they dug into the front yards of homes, plowing down to the line, checking it for lead, and if need be, removing the line altogether to replace it.

The poisonous pipes date back decades, but came into national focus in 2014, when lead leached out of the water lines in Flint, Michigan. About 100,000 people were exposed to the hazardous metal, including 12,000 children whose young brains can be stunted by the toxin, potentially impacting their IQs for life. Community members in Flint are still coping with the impacts of the crisis. They recently faced a deadline to apply for funding from the settlement, and many are fighting to launch a study of cancer rates that they claim could be connected to their water.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead can enter drinking water when a chemical reaction occurs in plumbing materials that cause corrosion. Because there is no safe level of lead in young children, all sources of lead exposure should be eliminated. The agency suggests using a filter or bottled water. You can read the suggestions on their website.

For many in America, Flint may feel like a distant tragedy. But even eight years later, millions of lead pipes are still carrying drinking water to families.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, estimates as many as 12 million lead pipes still carry drinking water to 22 million people in the US.

Removing those pipes is difficult and expensive. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it costs an average of $4,700 to replace just one lead service line but depending on the line, it could cost more than $12,000, and that's only if you know where the lead lines are actually located.

According to a survey by the NRDC, a total of 40 states could not say exactly where all of their lead pipes are located. We've plotted them on the map below.

The NRDC found the 10 states with the most lead lines are:

  1. Illinois
  2. Ohio
  3. Michigan
  4. New York
  5. New Jersey
  6. Missouri
  7. Wisconsin
  8. Indiana
  9. Texas
  10. Minnesota

Experts believe every state should be working hard to track down and remove their lead pipes. But due to poor record-keeping and lost documents, cities have very little to go on. They're often left guessing where the lines are, and spending thousands each time they dig, with no guarantee they're in the right place.

That's where Eric Schwartz comes in.

Schwartz is a data scientist and a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School. During the Flint water crisis, he started asking questions, trying to determine if his background in data science might serve an important purpose.

It did.

What we saw in Flint was that they didn't have enough information about where the lead pipes were, but they did have a lot of information about the homes," Schwartz told Spotlight on America.

He got to work, developing a program that could take available information about a property, from the age of the home, to its location, to the size of the water main, even the distance to a fire hydrant, and use AI to process the data and begin to predict where the lead lines would likely be.

For Schwartz, it became a passion project.

Our goal is to reduce the time that people are exposed to lead. And ideally that would be zero," said Schwartz. "The fact that it has been years for some kids, especially, or pregnant mothers is devastating.

In Flint, the predictions being generated by AI were about 80% successful at tracking down lead, far better than the 12-15% the city of Flint was having on its own.

Schwartz started getting calls from other cities, and that's when he launched a start-up company called BlueConduit, now serving 50 cities across the US, including Toledo, Ohio, Trenton, New Jersey, and Detroit.

"Lead is not spread equally. It's disproportionately affecting communities of color and disadvantaged communities. And that is exactly where we've really prioritized our work," Schwartz told us.

In each of their cities, the BlueConduit team inputs data, sometimes even converting it from hand-written records at city hall, and AI crunches the data to reveal the likelihood of lead in a full-color map that shows where lead lines are most likely to be.

Back in Detroit, crews are putting the patterns into action, breaking ground in the places most likely to have lead.

Resident Nathaniel Miller, who cares for his grandchildren during the day, is relieved he doesn't have to worry about lead in his water anymore.

"It's a blessing to not have to worry about them coming up and have lead in their system," Miller told us.

Schwartz and his team hope to deliver that peace of mind to communities across the nation that are still grappling with poisonous pipes. He told us he's not stopping anytime soon.

"The opportunity is about to explode," he said. "And we're here. We're the first ones to ever do it. We invented the approach and we are ahead of the game to really seize the opportunity."


This month, BlueConduit received $1 million in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue its mission to identify and remove lead pipes at 10 million homes across the US.

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