The story of the Flint (Michigan) water crisis is one of corruption, incompetence, denial, and more importantly; grass roots heroism. In April of 2014, State Treasury officials in Flint changed their water supply to the Flint River in an effort to save money. Shortly after, residents began to complain about orange stinky water. Those concerns were quickly followed by confirmed E. coli in the city water which resulted in officials telling residents to boil their water. The city then decided to over-chlorinate the water which resulted in the water now smelling like a swimming pool and burning residents eyes while they would shower. The chlorine levels were so high that Flint had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. The water became so corrosive that General Motors pulled out of the Flint water supply system because it was damaging automotive parts.
The orange stinky water was only the visible issue. The odorless and invisible problem of lead in the water continued to worsen. All water suppliers in the U.S. (except Flint) know enough to add a corrosion control treatment to water. This treatment helps build up a thin barrier on the inside of pipes to help avoid them from degrading. Flint, like many municipalities, has some lead pipes supplying their water so this treatment is critical to prevent the lead in the pipes from breaking down and entering the water supply. As residents in Flint began to notice strange skin rashes, children losing weight, and countless other health symptoms; Flint officials continued to say everything with the water supply was fine. If a water supply has greater than 15 parts per billion of lead, it is considered unsafe. At 5,000 ppb it is considered toxic waste. One mom in Flint who had her water tested regularly due to the health impacts of her children, had her homes water verified at 13,000ppb. You would think all of that detail and documented test results from other homes would be sufficient for officials to respond accordingly. Sadly, the mantra of everything is fine continued.
Marc Edwards, an appalled research scientist from Virginia Tech and a number of his grad students are one of the heroes in this story. He and his team descended on the city with lead water test kits and held a press conference to speak to their results. He even provided a visualization (pictured above) which shows how the Flint water quickly degraded a nail in a water bottle. Officials downplayed those results as inaccurate and continued to say all was fine. The (former) mayor even said how his family drinks the water and it is fine for everyone else to do so as well. Regardless, this began to draw broad attention. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician worked with others to compare lead levels in children under 5 years old who lived in Flint. She found that the percentage of kids who had elevated lead levels doubled after the change of water supply. This was a courageous data point to bring forward when the very folks who help fund her medical center would be hurt by the information. Again, state and local officials tried to debunk her numbers but after days of evaluating the data, begrudgingly agreed with the conclusion. Dr. Hanna-Attisha further outlined for residents and officials what the potential real world impacts could be for children with lead poisoning which helped open residents eyes to the seriousness of the issue. Leanne Walters and the other residents who pursued action and answers tirelessly while having to boil bottled water to be able to give their children warm baths are also heroes.
Today, Flint is back on Detroit water but much of the damage has been done and Flint is now in a declaration of emergency with federal aid on the way. Residents continue to need to use bottled water for now. A full timeline of some of the key milestones has been published here by the governor’s office and Michigan radio did a great story on the issue which you can listen to here. The fact that this happened is not the most concerning part, all people make mistakes and have poor judgement some of the time. The real concern is the persistent denial of the truth that led to serious consequences that will continue for years to come in homes, health care clinics, and courtrooms. I cannot speak to the motivations of some to blatantly lie to the EPA and others about the water being treated, the test results, etc. Often, in situations like this it seems egotistical self-preservation plays a role.
The story of Flint draws many parallels to our currently warming planet. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the human impact on global temperature and climate, a small group with loud voices continue to beat the drum saying everything is fine. Even with 2015 being the warmest year on record, they continue to try to discredit the data. Sadly, that group includes many in power and even some presidential candidates seeking more power. Making meaningful progress on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is a much tougher battle than improving one cities drinking water, but that progress will need to evolve in the same format: an honest dialogue that prioritizes the best interests of the many.