As citizens in Flint, Mich., wait for the government to fix the problems that led to lead contamination in their drinking water, they and many others doubtless wonder how communities can protect themselves in the future.

Centralized water systems put control of water treatment and testing in the hands of skilled professionals using sophisticated equipment. But the crisis in Flint has shown that those systems alone are not enough to safeguard drinking water. One improvement would be installation of sensors that provide immediate and unambiguous answers about water purity.

Many Flint residents knew they had lead in their tap water last year, but they didn’t know how much. Sensor technology being developed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee immediately indicates the amount present, whether it’s only 1 part per billion or far above the limit of 15 parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

That type of technology could have alerted Flint residents the minute contamination occurred, and it can help protect the millions of Americans who still get their water from lead pipes. In Flint, contamination occurred when corroded pipes leached lead into tap water.

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