The revelation last year that unsafe drinking water in Flint, Mich., had exposed thousands of children to the dangerous heavy metal lead prompted a national outcry. President Obama declared a state of emergency, and a number of government officials resigned or were charged in the aftermath.
The crisis in Flint also caught the attention of five students at the Harvard Business School, who wondered if they could raise awareness about lead poisoning by crowdsourcing information about safe drinking water. As part of an assignment to launch a microbusiness, the five banded together to create a website called Clean Water Co., which lets users purchase $20 strips to test lead levels in tap water and upload the results into a collaborative map that will display lead levels in water across the country.
In the process, they tested water in 75 locations in the Boston area and discovered something alarming: More than 10 percent of the samples they collected contained enough lead to attract the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“There will be a government solution to this at some point, fingers crossed, but in the meantime it seemed like communities wanted some way of knowing what’s in their water,” said Schuyler Daum, one of the founders of the project. “We wanted to give them an easy way to do that.”
Using Harvard funding, Daum and classmates Nathan Hancock, Mike Monovoukas, Vik Bakshi, and Chris Brimsek launched the site late last month. The plan is to build the site into a portal of information about lead, which can cause developmental delays, behavioral problems, and many other health issues, especially among children. The students are also exploring the possibility of providing discounted water filters through the site.
To get the ball rolling, the five students collected drinking water samples from 75 businesses, public buildings, civic organizations, and universities in the Boston area in late March.
When they sent the samples to the environmental testing laboratory Accutest for analysis, they found that eight showed lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion, which is the EPA’s “action level” for the substance.
Some levels were even higher. The sample from a water fountain in Medford City Hall, for example, showed lead levels of 30 parts per billion — twice the EPA’s action level.
In the case of Medford City Hall, the students arranged a phone meeting with the town engineer. The engineer confirmed that she has since been working to corroborate the finding and isolate the cause of the high lead levels.
Other locations with lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion also were alerted to the results and given information about where to seek solutions.
Hancock, who previously earned a PhD in environmental science and engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, said the dialogue with the authorities in Medford is an example of the type of conversation between citizen scientists and local governments that he’d like to see come about as a result of the Clean Water Co.
A complicating issue, Hancock said, is that it’s not always clear whether high lead levels in drinking water are a result of the municipal water system or aging plumbing within a structure.
“One of the really interesting and sticky challenges with this is that it’s not just a public infrastructure problem,” Hancock said. “It’s also incumbent on property owners to know what’s in their water and take action on it.”
Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at Boston University who is not involved in the Clean Water Co., pointed out that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority already conducts tests for lead in water from reservoirs and community lines.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that home and business owners are aware of lead that leaches into their tap water from internal lead plumbing or from lines connecting mains to individual structures. Nobody notified by Clean Water Co. of high lead levels was already aware of the problem, Hancock said.
“Broadly, I don’t think [the Clean Water Co.’s] findings are inconsistent with what one would expect,” Levy said.
The Harvard Business School students’ findings aren’t the first in the Boston area to suggest that lead is a local concern. Two city school employees were placed on administrative leave last week, for example, as officials investigate why water fountains in some schools were turned on before water testing had been completed, potentially exposing children to water with high levels of lead.
“What we are providing as a company is essentially a really easy technique,” Hancock said. “You could give it to your grandmother and have her test her own home.”