Safe Water for All

From India to Flint, Michigan, Siddhartha Roy has seen what happens when water resources are insufficient and is pushing to drastically reduce lead in drinking water by 2040.

Siddhartha Roy
After working on the Flint water crisis as a graduate student, Carolina environmental engineer Siddhartha Roy strives to drastically reduce the amount of lead in drinking water worldwide. (photo by Megan Mendenhall)
August 15th, 2023

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When Siddhartha Roy was a child, his family woke up every morning at 7 a.m. to collect water from their faucet, amassing it in earthen pots and steel storage tanks to use for the rest of the day. This was the only hour of the day water was piped into their house.

“If you sleep late, you lose it,” he says.

Growing up in Palanpur, India, Roy witnessed the scarcity of water all around him: hours-long lines, women pumping by hand every morning, and neighbors occasionally fighting over a resource that should be a human right.

“Having access to drinkable water and toilets has radically transformed civilization,” Roy says. “We wake up, we take a shower, brush our teeth, use the bathroom, and leave. If you are in a small village in India, getting water could take half your day.”

Globally, 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 800 million lack access to an improved water source of any kind, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And while the campaign for ridding water of microbial diseases, such as cholera and dysentery, is progressing, Roy looks ahead to the next challenge.

“When we say ‘safe’ water, it should mean chemically safe, too,” Roy stresses.

The United Nation’s International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) cites that one in three children have elevated blood lead levels, a common metal contaminant Roy is focused on fighting. Lead exposure at high levels can lead to brain and nervous system damage, along with slowed growth and development, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2022, Roy joined the Water Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill to focus on removing heavy metals and other chemical contaminants from water systems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) — which are often in similar situations to the one he grew up in. While the project starts in Ghana, Roy and his colleagues have their sights set on lead-safe water for all.

Keeping the humanity in science

Roy has compassionate, thoughtful parents — his father a professor and his mother “the most empathetic yet practical woman he’s ever met” — who taught him that science can’t be an apathetic tool. It must be used for the good of humanity.

In 2006, Roy began pursuing an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, but by the time graduation was upon him, he felt dissatisfied with the field he’d chosen.

“I learned about everything that was relevant,” he admits. “But there was little discussion about how engineers fit into and advance society.”

What Roy did enjoy about engineering was the environmental perspective. In 2012, after a year of working in data analytics, he decided to apply to Virginia Tech’s civil and environmental engineering graduate program, with a focus on water quality.

In 2015, as a graduate student, he visited homes in Flint, Michigan, where residents were experiencing two crises – one on water safety and another on government inaction. A year earlier, the city had switched its water sources from Lake Huron to the local river without mandating corrosion control treatments.

Roy stood in the kitchen of a middle-class home, chatting with LeeAnne Walters, the first Flint resident to determine the city was not testing the water properly. Her water was a shade of yellow-brown similar to the samples Roy had seen from residents in other homes — and it had astronomically high levels of lead in it.

Walters introduced Roy to one of her twins, who had elevated blood lead levels. By the time Roy made it to Flint, residents had been reporting discolored water and sick children for months — but the state of Michigan denied these claims.

Residents had reached out to Roy’s PhD advisor at Virginia Tech, Marc Edwards, to learn more about their water problems and to support their fight with data. His team analyzed water samples from 269 homes and found lead levels in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

A State of Michigan spokesperson told the media that the Virginia Tech team had a history of finding lead problems where there were none — statements that were backed by local scientists and government leaders. It felt like a war, and Roy in his naïveté couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t on the same side.

The people of Flint started recognizing issues with their water immediately following the supply switch in 2014 — and it wouldn’t be switched back to the properly treated Lake Huron until October 2015.

At the start of 2016, a state of emergency was declared by Michigan and then President Obama. Flint’s water finally began meeting federal standards, and the city has since replaced nearly all lead and galvanized steel pipes. Given the failure of government at all levels in causing and prolonging the crisis, trust issues surrounding water quality continue to exist between the citizens and the state to this day.

To highlight the inaction of Michigan’s government and scientists, Roy gave a TED Talk in 2017.

In it, he discusses “science for the public good” and an increasing level of apathy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — fields he says are heavily focused on technical training and less so on how it should be used and the responsibility such knowledge carries. To Roy, Flint was the result.

“I don’t see a lot of courage in academics,” he says. “I see this mentality to keep your head down and get funding and do your research. But when you see people suffering in such an obvious way, do you stand up? Do you blow the whistle?”

The Flint crisis occurred in the United States, a high-income country with extensive — albeit imperfect — legislation surrounding its water infrastructure. The failure served as a reminder of how poorly equipped the world is when it comes to chemical contaminants in water. Roy knew from personal experience that other countries are much worse off and decided it was time to take his fight abroad.

For Roy, Carolina’s Water Institute was the logical next step.

“The Water Institute has an illustrious track record of working in some of the poorest countries in the world and asking important questions about water quality and health,” Roy points out. “It fit my expertise and my long-term goals of wanting to work in international development. I want to give back, to work on problems in India and other places.”

Creating a blueprint

Roy’s work at Carolina is taking him to Western Africa, a region composed of LMICs, where safe water access has been a widespread issue and most progress has only been made in the past two to three decades.

“Historically, in these areas, research and action have focused on microbial issues. And that’s urgent,” Roy shares. “But there are other problems with the water infrastructure there. What are they made of? Are there metal components? Are they leaching metals into drinking water at levels that can cause health harm?”

As infrastructure continues to develop in these places, Roy aims to address chemical and toxic metal contamination, which can sometimes fade into the background behind microbial contamination due to its less immediate and chronic effects. He uses the United States as an example of why lead contamination is a critical issue and the need to avoid the use of lead in all new infrastructure.

“The bulk of this country was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lead pipes are pervasive, and some major cities have hundreds of thousands of them,” Roy says.

Even with laws such as the Lead and Copper Rule, which informs municipalities on how to handle lead and copper contamination in water, systems with lead levels in violation of federal law like Flint are common in the U.S., showing just how important it is to address this problem early and thoroughly.

The installation of water infrastructure in LMICs is even less organized or uniform. Roy’s project at UNC-Chapel Hill is holistic, focusing on education and partnership, providing countries with the resources and knowledge they need to identify and remediate lead contamination.

While the project is circumstantial to a region’s unique situation, there is a general pattern it follows.

The first step is identification. Does this country, municipality, or infrastructure actually have a chemical problem? This is about surveillance and monitoring, giving community members the ability to test their water and teaching them how to interpret the results.

“Many of these countries don’t even have high-functioning water-quality labs,” Roy says. “What capabilities do they need in terms of methods and analytical instruments in the laboratory?”

If a problem is identified and evaluated, then there are two goals: to alert and inform the people drinking the water and to remediate the water. The solution might require changing parts, installing filters, modifying design, or adding a chemical, and are implemented on an individual and community level.

As this process is replicated in different countries and regions, Roy and his colleagues aim to aggregate their findings and experience into a knowledge portal, identifying factors that affect water safety and infrastructure. These include policy, education, monitoring and surveillance, lab and human capacity, and more.

Pushing for clean water globally

The Water Institute has conducted important work on lead and toxic metal contamination in LMICs for years. After coming to UNC-Chapel Hill, Roy joined an informal working group created by the institute’s director, Aaron Salzberg, to address the global issue of lead water contamination.

The working group includes members from WHO, UNICEF, World Vision, WaterAid, IAMPO, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Leeds, and even local partners in Ghana. Fueled by the Water Institute’s testing in Ghana, Mali, and Niger, the group created a new global pledge to eliminate lead in drinking water by 2040, launched at the U.N. 2023 Water Conference in March. Now, they’re recruiting countries and organizations working in the water sector to sign the pledge.

Although still in its infancy, the working group hopes to eventually table a full U.N. resolution targeting lead in drinking water.

“For the first time, we are talking about this at a global level. But the pledge is a starting point that galvanizes action — and I am optimistic. The real work begins now.”

Siddhartha Roy is a research associate at the Water Institute within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.