Do Americans take safe drinking water for granted? Most likely, according to Marc Edwards, an expert in drinking water safety.

Do Americans take safe drinking water for granted? Most likely, according to Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech who was a recent guest on the Earth & Sky Radio Series ( Edwards won a 2007 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called a “genius” grant. Edwards – an expert in drinking water safety – said Americans have better access to quality drinking water than most of the world.

He should know. He’s worked on a national scale to ensure safe drinking water, through an aging and sometimes dangerous water-delivery infrastructure. “Most of the water pipes and treatment plans in our country are over 40 years old right now. And they’re nearing the end of their useful life,” he explains.

Edwards says a major problem is lead – that the United States has more than 5 million lead pipes in its water infrastructure. He said it would cost $1 trillion to completely correct this problem. Over time, lead corrodes and leaches into the water and fosters bacteria growth.

There are no laws requiring lead testing or replacement of plumbing. Lead poisoning in young children can lead to neurological problems. Meanwhile, Edwards claims only 10 percent of schools have tested their drinking water in recent years. “There are simple measures we can take that are very inexpensive to mitigate this problem. For example, installing filters where the water comes out,” he says.

Lead pipes have been used since the Roman Empire began building aqueducts. Edwards notes, “Lead is a good quality plumbing material, from the perspective that it lasts a long time and it does not break. Unfortunately, the little that can leach from those pipes into the water is sufficient to pose a serious health concern. More recently, the issue we’ve been discovering is pieces of lead from these pipes, and from lead solder, sometimes detach and essentially fall off into the water in pieces. This is very disconcerting, because, in some cases, you can take a single glass of water, and if you’re unlucky, and it has that piece of lead in it, you can get a very high dose of lead, similar to that which you could obtain by eating lead paint chips.”