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Drinking lead contaminated water? Better check your sensor

Nov 22, 20175 mins
GovernmentInternet of ThingsSensors

The next time you’re unsure about official information that might impact your health or safety, verify the facts for yourself with a sensor. They don’t have an agenda, and give the same readings whether you’re rich or poor.

President Ronald Reagan once advised “trust, but verify” about nuclear disarmament. The same could be said about some official information on public health and safety issues. Remember Flint, Michigan?

LeeAnne Walters is a mother of four in Flint, Michigan. She was alarmed when her entire family started losing clumps of hair and her twins kept breaking out in rashes, reported Mother Jones. The family was suffering from the effects of lead in Flint’s water supply. Frustrated with the city’s response, Walters contacted a manager at the EPA which helped unleash a chain of investigations into the crisis.


NPR reported that lead seepage into the drinking water in Flint, Michigan caused a massive public health crisis and prompted a federal state of emergency. The problem began when the city switched its water supply in 2014. Almost immediately, residents of Flint — a majority-black city where 40 percent of people live in poverty — started complaining about the quality of the water. City and state officials denied for months that there was a serious problem. By that time, supply pipes had sustained major corrosion and lead was leaching into the water. The city switched back to its original water supply late last year, but it was too late to reverse the damage to the pipes.

Over 100,000 Flint residents were potentially exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water due to insufficient water treatment. Residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water. Part of the contamination in Flint is from the use of hazardous lead service pipes that connect municipal main water supplies to older homes and communities. City officials issued a questionable boil advisory that ran contrary to Center for Disease Control guidelines. “Boiling water does not remove lead. The lead concentration of the water can actually increase slightly as some of the water evaporates with boiling.”

What are people supposed to do with missing information, and dangerous advice? There’s a vital role here for technology to provide correct information.

How sensors and IoT help

New sensors and remote monitoring applications can warn residents and officials of contamination levels. It’s not much, but at least it’s a start till public infrastructure is improved.

NanoAffix Science

This startup uses technology licensed patented technologies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Research Foundation. It’s working on a handheld device for real-time, on-site detection of toxic lead in tap water with design goals of:

  1. An affordable price point around $10/sensor
  2. Resiliency with enough power to run for a year without changing the battery
  3. Miniaturization to have multiple contaminant sensors on a single probe Nanofix integrates a micro-sized sensor chip built upon a graphene-gold nanoparticle sensing platform along with a portable digital meter to displays the results.

University of Michigan project

Mark Burns, the T.C. Chang Professor of Chemical Engineering at U-M, and his colleagues are working on an inexpensive sensor that can be placed at key points in city water systems and taps. “I hope it will have some impact because it is scary to think about having lead in your water,” Burns said.


The Waspmote Smart Water platform monitors water quality remotely. It uses multiple sensors to measure a range of water quality parameters, including the level of lead. Solar panels are used to recharge its ultra-low-power sensor node. Sensor reading can be sent to the cloud via a cellular (3G, GPRS, WCDMA) or long range 802.15.4/ZigBee (868/900MHz).

The dangers of lead poisoning

Lead affects children’s brain development. It lowers IQ and reduces educational attainment. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioural disorders according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Sensors to detect lead in water and alert residents are just a start. They aren’t a fix.

Many cities stopped using them decades ago, but millions of lead lines are still in use today.

“Flint is a microcosm,” says Robert Glennon, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona in Tuscon and author of the book, “Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.” “The maintenance of water systems and wastewater systems is not just an urban problem, or a problem for places with low-income residents. It’s a problem all over the nation that needs to be addressed.”

The aftermath

Governor Snyder, along with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Let me be blunt,” the governor said in his opening statement. “This was a failure of government at all levels. Local, state and federal officials — we all failed the families of Flint.”

Four government officials—one from the city of Flint, two from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and one from the Environmental Protection Agency—resigned over the mishandling of the crisis. There have also been 15 criminal cases filed against local and state officials in regards to the crisis.

Take President Regan’s advice of “trust, but verify” seriously, the next time you’re unsure about official information that might impact your health or safety. Verify the facts for yourself with a sensor. They don’t have an agenda, and give the same readings whether you’re rich or poor.


Deepak Puri is an IoT expert and the cofounder of DemLabs, a SF-based non-profit hub for technology innovation in support of democracy. Formerly he held executive positions at Oracle, Netscape and VMware.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Deepak Puri and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications Inc. or its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.