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Federal funding to aid communities with lead in water contamination

December 6, 2017

HUDD water grant
Harold Faircloth (left), of the Macon County Health Department; Min Tang, a post-doctoral civil and environmental engineering researcher; and Kelsey Pieper, a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech, work together to test private well water in Macon County, North Carolina.

Virginia Tech has been awarded $600,000 in funding by the Department of Housing and Urban Development toward testing and approving water filters for communities suffering with lead in water contamination in homes supplied by both private wells and municipal water services.

Kelsey Pieper, a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech, is leading the Office of Lead Hazard and Healthy Homes Technical Studies project that will identify barriers to adoption and sustainability of low-cost lead filters and provide evidence-based information needed for residents to make informed treatment decisions.

The project will focus on three communities in North Carolina and Louisiana with unique water quality conditions making it difficult for residents to find cost-effective home remediation solutions.

“Understanding barriers to implementation and maintenance of lead filters in addition to taking various native dialects and demographics into consideration are critical elements of this study,” said Pieper, who works alongside Marc Edwards, University Distinguished Professor who exposed severe lead in water contamination problems in Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan.

Working with community partners and researchers at Louisiana State University Health Science Center, the Virginia Tech team will conduct surveys and focus groups to evaluate educational materials needed to address lead misperceptions, motivate proactive health behaviors, and support informed decision making and appropriate filter selection and maintenance.

The three communities in North Carolina and Louisiana that will benefit from the research funding all have lead in water contamination, but at different levels. In 2012, the Macon County, North Carolina, Health Department uncovered countywide water lead contamination in private wells. The governor of Louisiana declared a public health emergency for the town of St. Joseph in December 2016 due to high lead in water. Research in New Orleans spearheaded by Adrienne Katner, assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Health Science Center, demonstrated that the recommended flushing protocol of 30 seconds does not reduce water lead levels for all residents.

The first phase of the work is to evaluate readily available water filters commonly found in local hardware and grocery stores or online. Ming Tang, post-doctoral researcher, and Jeannie Purchase, doctoral student, both in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, are reviewing all low-cost filters in preparation for bench-scale analysis.

The second phase of the work will focus on testing the filters in the field and then coordinating with community stores to make ensure filter options are viable.

“We will engage residents and community stores to make sure they like the filters that we want to test,” said Purchase. “Getting that stamp of approval from the community is important to the research. When they like the product, [and] it’s cost efficient and effective, then they are more than likely to implement the filter in their homes.”

This study is a collaboration between Virginia Tech's Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Louisiana State University's School of Public Health, Macon County Health Department, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, and Southern United Neighborhoods.

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