NOVA: Troubled Waters

NOVA: Troubled Waters

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 9:00pm - 10:00pm

Pictured: A damaged pipe excavated from a Flint residence. Replacing all of Flint's lead pipes will be a multi-year endeavor.

Credit: Courtesy of Caitlin Saks / WGBH

Water. Turn on the faucet and it’s always there. Without it we perish. But how safe is our tap water?

NOVA: Troubled Waters, airing Wednesday, May 31 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV investigates how the water disaster in Flint, Michigan, has brought to light a disturbing truth about the vulnerabilities of water systems across the country. Narrated by Joe Morton, this eye-opening new one-hour documentary investigates exactly what went wrong in Flint. From the delicate intricacies of water chemistry to the biology of lead poisoning to the engineering challenge of replacing a ravaged water system, NOVA uses the lens of science to peer into the complex crisis, and to explore what it means for our nation’s infrastructure.

April 25, 2014. In a money-saving maneuver, the city of Flint, Michigan—under the authority of a state appointed emergency manager—switched its municipal water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Unbeknownst to the city officials at the time, this switch would trigger a chemical chain reaction with devastating results: thousands of children exposed to lead poisoning, and very likely two outbreaks of Legionnaire’s Disease, claiming twelve lives.

Guided by the nation’s leading water experts and with intimate access to the families most affected by the crisis, Troubled Waters unfolds like a detective story. The first trickle of trouble came in the form of discolored water, then an increase in reports of rashes and boils. Worried citizens complained; officials insisted the water was fine. Flint mom LeeAnne Walters was among the first to suspect something was seriously wrong, spurred on by the living experiment she had in her own home: her twin boys. One of them wasn’t growing properly.

Unwilling to accept the city’s response that the water was drinkable, Walters took matters into her own hands, contacting an independent research team from Virginia Tech, headed by chemical engineer Marc Edwards. Testing the tap water in Walters’ home, Edwards was stunned by the results: not only was there lead in the water, but the levels were so high that the water flowing from her home’s faucets qualified as hazardous waste.

Troubled Waters follows the trail of evidence as Edwards and his Virginia Tech team, including civil engineer Siddhartha Roy, leapt into action, investigating exactly what had gone wrong when the local authorities switched the city water supply. To solve the mystery, the researchers would need to unravel the complex chemistry that played out in the water pipes running beneath Flint’s streets and inside its residents’ homes.