Iowa Researchers to Develop Tools for Detecting Lead in Iowa Drinking Water

by Margot Dick

In 2015, residents of Flint, Mich., were dealt a rude awakening when they found out their taps contained harmful levels of lead. There are many factors that can lead to dangerous levels of lead in a home, but most algorithms designed to predict lead levels overlook the dangers present in drinking water.

David Cwiertny, the William D. Ashton Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Iowa, and a team of researchers were recently awarded $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a new public tool to estimate the areas of Iowa that are vulnerable to lead poisoning via their water supply.

Dave Cwiertny sits for a portrait

Dave Cwiertny

“The takeaway is that the assessment tools that different county public health agencies or state agencies use to try to predict if a community is at risk to lead exposure do not account for water,” said Cwiertny.

Cwiertny, who is also a research engineer at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering (IIHR), and his team are planning to use data from the ongoing drinking water crisis in Flint to create a dedicated tool to locate homes at risk for high lead levels in their pipes. The data from Flint will be used to determine indicators for elevated lead levels, which can then detect vulnerabilities in specific areas. The new tool will first be put to the test in Flint, then adapted to fit the needs of rural Iowa.

Awareness about lead levels in water is particularly low due to the focus on lead-based paint and lead levels in soil. The new tool will help groups such as the Iowa Department of Public Health determine where homes are at the highest risk for lead contamination and take action. The ultimate goal is to make the tool publicly accessible, allowing county public health agencies around Iowa intervene at a local level.

Three people in Iowa-branded clothing stand between a plumbing demonstration and Herky

Get the Lead out booth with Dr. Amina Grant (UI alumna and ORISE Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Danielle Land, and Drew Latta

“I think that emphasizes this understanding that pediatricians have known for some time that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, given its impacts on development,” said Cwiertny. “So even low-level exposures that could happen through having lead in your plumbing need to be taken seriously.”

The project is set to last three years, starting with the data already collected in Flint. Other team members include:

  • Marc Edwards, a University Distinguished Professor and Charles Lunsford Professor in the Charles Edward Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech University, who has conducted extensive research on the lead in the water in Flint
  • Michelle Scherer, a UI Distinguished Chair and professor of civil and environmental engineering as well as a faculty research engineer at IIHR, who is also principal investigator of UI’s Get the Lead Out state-wide outreach program
  • Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the pediatrician who originally discovered the dangerous lead levels in Flint and is founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative
  • Grant Brown, UI assistant professor of biostatistics in the College of Public Health
  • Drew Latta, UI assistant research scientist in IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering
  • Darrin Thompson, associate director of UI’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination
  • Alex Sukalski, director of IT services at the UI’s Public Policy Center
  • Danielle Land, a PhD student in the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Adapting the tool from the Flint data to fit Iowa’s rural communities is no small task. The team is prepared for several types of data collection, including lead level testing in schools by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, a re-launch of the Get the Lead Out program that sends free lead tests to Iowans for testing at the University of Iowa, and analysis of existing lead and water monitoring data.

Eventually, the tool will be available throughout Iowa, and hopefully someday nationwide.

– The Daily Iowan also posted a story about this project on March 29, 2022 –