Flint, Michigan: Water Safety Gone Horribly Wrong

Flint, Michigan: Water Safety Gone Horrible Wrong

Blog post by Roopa Suppiah, Co-founder of Water Well-ness Project – Get free updates of new blog posts here.

Photo by Keoni Cabral, Flickr CC.

Photo by Senate Democrats, Flickr CC.

In April 2014, in an effort to cut costs, the city of Flint stopped receiving water from the Detroit water system, which sourced its water from Lake Huron. The plan was to temporarily use a municipal source – the Flint River – until the city could transition to a regional water authority. However, the transition was never completed. Residents started noticing a bad taste and odd colour water soon after the switch. Why? Turns out that the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) wasn’t treating the Flint River water with anti-corrosive agents like it should have. So, the water service pipes around the city were being eroded by the Flint River water so that iron and worse, lead, were leaching into the municipal water supply and delivered like this to homes.

Fast-forward a year and a half when a local physician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, recognizes symptoms of lead poisoning in her patients and helps the community fit together the pieces for what’s been happening.

Why is lead worrisome?

Lead is a neurotoxin, especially damaging for children because their brain and body are still growing and developing. Long-term intellectual disabilities, behavioural deficiencies such as antisocial behavior, and organ damage are all serious and real consequences of lead poisoning. Many of these effects are irreversible. Exposure to lead is on the decline as common sources such as leaded paints and gasoline have been phased out by most countries. However, numerous industrial processes continue to use lead, including the manufacture of batteries for vehicles. Many cities in North America have changed lead water pipes to ones without this harmful component, however, as seen by the Flint, Michigan case, not all cities have taken this step.    

The Fallout

When Dr. Hanna-Attisha along with Flint’s residents began to cry out that something was wrong, the state DEQ denied for a long time that something was wrong. Finally, weeks later, actions were taken: the water supply was switched back to that supplied by the Detroit system in October 2015, the DEQ director stepped down, and law-suits and investigations are ongoing. However, issues remain since the Flint River water caused permanent damage to the pipes so that they continue to leach higher-than-acceptable levels of lead into the water. Until the pipes can be identified and changed, residents are forced to use only bottled water for their needs. The situation is so bad that President Obama has issued a state of emergency for Flint, so that $5 million in federal funding will be provided to help the city. In reality, probably 10 times this amount will be needed to fully fix the water service line issues.  All that is certain is that the people of Flint, Michigan have a long road ahead as they deal with the “aftermath” of water safety gone horribly wrong.

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