HDR Fellowship: lead contaminants

Leading in Lead: HDR Fellow’s Research Helping Clients Address Public Health Crisis

When the drinking water crisis hit Flint, Michigan, in 2016, Phil Brandhuber wanted to better familiarize himself with lead contaminants. Nearly two years later, he’s becoming an industry expert.

Phil, who holds a Ph.D. and two master’s degrees, has spent two decades studying inorganic contaminants in drinking water. Arsenic, chromium, perchlorate, manganese, nitrate — you name it, Phil has studied it. But it was lead that, well, led Phil to become one of the inaugural participants in the HDR Fellowship Program. The fellowship program provides HDR employees the opportunity to pursue their ideas to help our clients find innovative solutions to problems facing the industry. And when it comes to lead contamination in drinking water, Phil has done just that.

Phil studied ways to treat water so it corrodes lead pipes as little as possible. His findings will now help our clients better meet strict regulations to avoid a public health crisis like the one in Flint.

“It can be very difficult for clients to comply with regulations for lead in drinking water,” Phil said. “The idea behind my fellowship was to come up with a set of guidelines and practices for how we evaluate lead in drinking water, which in turn will help our clients meet lead regulations despite aging infrastructure.”

A Legacy Issue

The ultimate problem is known as a “legacy issue,” Phil said, meaning it’s not the water that’s the problem, but the infrastructure in place. Until the 1940s it was common for lead pipes to be used to connect the plumbing in houses to water mains in the street. Now those pipes, called service lines, are breaking down and contaminating the customer’s water with lead. But lead service lines are not the only problem — lead is also found in some of the decades-old soldered connections and brass fixtures in homes.

“There are an estimated 8 to 10 million lead service lines in the U.S. connecting water mains to individual houses,” Phil said. “The ultimate solution is to replace all of those lead pipes, but that will cost billions of dollars and take years to complete. We need to put a solution in place in the interim that will work until these pipes can be replaced.”

Sharing the Findings

Phil’s fellowship helped him inform utilities about lead by organizing the publication of a series of articles written by industry experts in OpFlow, a monthly periodical produced by the American Water Works Association. For this series, he authored an article on how water quality can be managed to minimize lead corrosion, and he co-authored an article on the background of lead in plumbing materials along with case studies illustrating best practices used by water utilities.

“When it comes to lead, there is a fundamental understanding of the chemistry behind the problem, and what can be done to solve it,” Phil said. “But the transition from understanding the chemistry to the actual implementation of a solution is very difficult.”

The Next Step

Phil will now taking this research to our clients. We are putting the tools in place to help utilities in three main areas: providing better statistical analysis techniques for evaluating water quality, mapping where the lead is at in the distribution systems using a geographic information system, and making recommendations on how to standardize the lead evaluation process.

“In drinking water, our mission first and foremost is to protect public health by making sure water at a consumer’s tap is safe to drink,” Phil said. “Lead in drinking water is a significant public health issue that has to be dealt with. It’s an issue our clients will be facing for years to come.

“We want to help any way we can — and this fellowship was an avenue for HDR to do that.”