Kelsey Pieper is an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University. She helped uncover sources of water contamination in Flint, Michigan, leading her to more recent work in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico. Recently, in a small community along the St. Lawrence River in New York, people saw their dishwashers breaking down. The metal interiors were corroded, their surfaces pock-marked with white. The residents could not understand what went wrong but with appliances breaking down, it started stoking fear in their minds about the water. Pieper was part of the search for a cause. The team uncovered the bitter truth: salt. She is aware of how corrosive the chloride in salt can be and how it may lead to contamination at times. Thus, she wants others, too, to know what’s in their water.
At the time when Pieper was working at Virginia Tech, she heard from a resident of Fisher’s Landing, a community of 89 people tucked into the crook of northwestern New York. This resident had read that chloride was partly to blame for lead contamination in Flint and got worried. She had seen high lead levels on her property and others had seen high chloride levels on theirs. It was also where people lived in close proximity to a Department of Transportation facility full of the salt used to treat roads, a compound that’s one- half chloride. The team offered to test the water for free and the results showed that chloride levels were highest in the places closest to where the salt was stored. Additionally, one in five homes used water that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit not only for chloride but for lead or copper as well.
Even though comprehensive solutions are proving necessary in some parts of the United States, in others, a problem with lead can stem from a seemingly simple source: road salt, which New York uses more than any other state. To the majority of U.S. residents, whose water comes from public sources and is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, salt-saturated water shouldn’t be a problem. However, people who get their water from private wells, natural springs or cisterns don’t have that luxury, which is an estimated 47 million Americans.
Shahjadi Jemim Rahman