Ep 12 Flint Water Crisis

Engineering News - Self Repairing Concrete

Engineering Failure - Flint Water Crisis

Map of Flint, the Flint River and the Detroit River

Source - Google Maps

Residential Water Lead Levels in Flint


Engineering News: 

Self Repairing Concrete - https://techxplore.com/news/2021-01-tunnels-bridges.html

Flint Water Crisis

Episode Summary

Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures.  I’m your host, Nicole, and I’m from Calgary, Alberta.  

A couple housekeeping items up front.  I will be doing a Q&A bonus episode in a few weeks.  If there is anything you want to ask me about me, my job as a mechanical engineering consultant, the podcast, or about engineering in general; please send them to @failurology on twitter or email them thefailurologypodcast@gmail.com.  

Second item, I'm very excited to announce that the podcast is now available on youtube.  So, if youtube is your preferred method to consume media, please head on over and check it out.  My channel is called Failurology.  There’s a link to it in the show notes for this episode.

This week’s engineering failure is the Flint Water Crisis.  This one hits home especially hard for me because while I’m from Calgary, I wasn’t born here.  I was born outside of Windsor Ontario, which is just a short drive and a border crossing away from Flint.  I moved to Calgary in 2008, after graduating from post-secondary.  

Detroit, coined the motor city, was an automotive hub for decades, ever since Henry Ford started the Ford Motor Company in the early 1900s.  Manufacturing kept the economy, on both sides of the border, spinning for decades.  And not just the employees at the factories themselves, there were several tool and die shops, suppliers, transportation, and many more industries feeding those factories.  You could even argue that all of those people in the roles I just mentioned spent their money on food, housing, entertainment, and the like that spread out like a spider web and integrated into the fabric of the entire economy of the area.  

When those factories close, it impacts everyone.  Now to be fair, those companies are well within their legal right to relocate.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to negatively impact those left behind.  I witnessed the first hand in Windsor, and if I’m being completely honest, it’s one of the reasons I left.  I strongly believe in economic diversification.  You can’t put all of your lemons in one basket, because if, or when in most cases, the bottom drops out, now you have no lemons.  How are you supposed to make lemonade without any lemons? Alberta even has this problem to an extent; our current administration is very focused on the oil and gas sector.  I’m not saying we walk away from oil and gas, but the world is changing and we need to stay ahead of the curve.  There are other industries, such as tech, that require similar skill sets to oil and gas that we could focus some of our energy on.  

But back to Flint.  By 2014, they were struggling economically.  At its peak population in 1960, Flint had almost 200,000 people.  This is when a lot of the original service pipe infrastructure would have been installed.  Today, there are under 100,000 people.  And that population has shrunk almost 25% since 2000.  

The reduced population not only impacted the tax base, and revenue generated for public programs, it also created dead legs of piping, or sections of pipe with no flow.  With limited income, the City of Flint went into a state of financial emergency and a series of very poor decisions were made which ultimately led to the water crisis that started in 2014 and from what I can see, is still going on today.

How many times a day do you use the water taps in your house? We drink from it, we cook with it, we bathe in it.  In Canada, most of us have been spoiled and blindly trust that the tap water won’t hurt us or kill us.  I wish I could say that people worldwide have access to clean, safe tap water; but that’s just not the case.  In Canada and the United States, there are still several communities either don’t have access to flowing water, or the water they do have is harmful in some way or another.  To know the water is bad is one thing, but to find out after you’ve been drinking it for months that it’s toxic?  Not even when just ingested, but also even when bathing in it?  I can’t even imagine.  This is the nightmare that Flint residents have been living with.

Then to make matters worse, once the cat was out of the bag, the officials in charge didn’t really step up and take responsibility.  They fought with the residents of Flint for months before making any kind of correction.  While the water source has been corrected, a lot more pipes still need to be replaced and that process is still ongoing.

And let’s not forget that health care is not a right, but a privilege in the United States.  Many Americans are either not insured or underinsured, meaning the financial burden of the health effects from this problem that they didn’t want or didn’t cause, will land on the residents of Flint themselves.  

Since the politics of Flint are an integral part of the story, I am going to touch on that.  But this is not a political podcast, so I will try to keep it to the science of how and why the water source and piping impacted the people of Flint.  But talking about Flint, without pointing out the environmental racism, would be a disservice to the people of Flint.  If Flint had been rich or mostly white, would they have gone as long without clean drinking water?  Would they even have had toxic drinking water in the first place?  I don’t believe so.  One thing has been clear from all of the things I’ve read about the Flint water crisis, those at the top, didn’t give a damn about the people of Flint.  Not even when they started speaking up and had the water tested.  Nothing really started to change until word got out on what was really going on and the rest of the world was watching.  And it’s still not even over.  

I’m going to take a deep dive into what happened in Flint, but first, the news.

This week in engineering news; buildings, tunnels and bridges could repair themselves by imitating the automatic healing properties of the human body.  Cracks in structures are very common.  And as cracks form due to movement, vibration or general wear, they provide a path for liquids and gases to enter the structure and impact durability of the concrete or stone itself but also the rebar as well.  In cold climates, any water that enters can freeze during the winter and cause even more damage.  Repair to ageing infrastructure takes a huge portion of annual maintenance budgets.  And replacement costs are even higher.

Engineers and researchers have been working with bacteria to develop ways to repair damage to stone, masonry and concrete.  Previously, other groups have demonstrated that it’s possible to create self healing concrete by including bacterial spores within tiny capsules in the initial concrete mix.  When a crack forms, the capsule ruptures and the bacteria multiply, producing calcium carbonate; hardening and sealing the crack.  I’ve often seen similar products used on foundation concrete to prevent groundwater from impacting the integrity of the structure.

But what about existing structures or natural stone?

The GEOHEAL project at Cardiff University in Wales UK has developed a technique to spray or brush existing structures with a liquid containing naturally occurring soil bacteria, working its way into the rock and eventually healing damage as it occurs.  Additional calcium is added to the liquid so that the bacteria doesn’t feed off the calcium in the stone and degrade it further.

The bacteria have also been used to develop a self-healing mortar to hold stones and brick together.  When cracks form, the nutrients are exposed to the bacteria, feeding it, multiplying it, repairing the cracks.

A two year test project found that the bacteria could improve the microstructure of the masonry, didn’t change the appearance and didn’t impact the breathability of the stone.

The applications for these solutions are vast for existing, aging structures.  The construction industry is responsible for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  By helping this infrastructure to last longer, the self healing materials can reduce those emissions. 

If you want to read more on self healing structures, check out the link on the web page for this episode.

Now on to this week’s engineering failure; the Flint Water Crisis.  After switching the City of Flint’s water supply from the Detroit River to the Flint River in April 2014, over 10,000 children were exposed to lead in their drinking water, at least 12 people died of Legionnaires’ disease and an estimated several hundred pregnancies ended in stillbirth.  

Before I get into the hows and whys of the Flint Water Crisis, there are some things you need to know first.

Check out the podcast page, link in show notes, for photos and sources from this week’s episode.  On this episode’s webpage, I have a map of Michigan showing Flint and Detroit, a map of Flint showing lead levels in residential households between 2016 and 2018, and two samples of water, one from Flint tap water and one from Detroit.  

If you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, please rate, review and subscribe to failurology, so more people can find it.  And if you want to chat with me, or send me questions for the Q&A episode, my twitter handle is @failurology or you can email me at thefailurologypodcast@gmail.com.  

Thanks everyone for listening.  And tune in next week to hear about the Chernobyl Disaster, considered the worse nuclear disaster in history.  But more on that next week.  Bye everyone, talk soon!