The water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan has made nationwide news in the past two months but has been an ongoing problem for nearly two years. Between the nationwide scramble to donate clean water, the ongoing questioning of government officials involved in the crisis, and the effort to provide medical support to impacted citizens, the root of the disaster comes down to the failure to treat the Flint river with a specific chemical. The situation was exacerbated by a failure to take the problem seriously for over a year. Now, the city will be feeling the effects of these failures for a long time to come.
The city of Flint, facing financial stress, opted to save money by switching the city’s drinking water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which supplies water from Lake Huron. Given that the KWA project was not expected to be finished until 2016, the city decided to temporarily adopt the Flint River as a water source, from April 2014 until the KWA system opened, a move that was projected to save $5 million.
Almost immediately, citizens began to raise concerns about the color, smell, and taste of the water. In August, after coliform bacteria were found in the water, city officials advised residents to boil their water in order to remove contaminants, and reiterated the suggestion in September. A month later, General Motors reported that they would no longer use Flint river water for their engines after their pipes had begun to rust. In January 2015, the city discovered that pollutants were found in excessive levels in the water, and days later, elevated lead levels were discovered for the first time. In February, a Flint mother contacted the Chicago Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after her son developed rashes all over his body, and an EPA water expert began an investigation.
Throughout this affair, Flint public officials were well aware of citizens’ concerns. Governor Rick Snyder allocated $2 million to improve Flint’s water quality, the EPA expressed their concern about lead contamination, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) reported that they were monitoring lead and copper levels in the water, and the city began the process of switching back to Detroit water, while advising people to only drink, cook, and make baby formula with water from the cold tap. Yet at the same time, officials adamantly maintained that Flint’s drinking water was safe and within all environmental regulations. The MDEQ dismissed the EPA investigator as a “rogue employee” after he reported on the danger, and the Health and Human Services Department stated that rising lead levels were just following a seasonal trend. It wasn’t until October 2015 that a public health emergency was officially announced, several MDEQ officials resigned, and the city of Flint switched back to using DWSD water. However, fixing the problem was not so simple; the lead pipes in Flint had already been damaged from the river water, and in the same way that a window is more easily shattered once cracked for the first time, Flint pipes have continued to leach lead despite carrying less corrosive water. On January 5, 2016, Governor Snyder formally declared a state of emergency.
Daniel Giammar, a chemical engineering professor at Washington University, told Frontiers that, unlike the Detroit water, the Flint River water was not treated with orthophosphate (a corrosion inhibitor) and that chemical difference was what made the water too corrosive for the aging Flint pipes to handle. “These lead pipes have been equilibrating with one particular water chemistry for [a long time],” Giammar said, explaining that when the water changed, the pipes were unfit to handle it. “We have lead pipes in St. Louis. Our water chemistry is not corrosive towards them … [the water chemistry] is almost unchanged since 1904” Giammar remarked and mentioned that if St. Louis were to change the pH or alkalinity of its water, it would be important to test the supply before implementing the new water system: “They should have optimized for corrosion control when they made the switch, and they didn’t.”
The lack of candor from Michigan officials regarding the magnitude of the crisis will make it very difficult for the citizens to regain trust in the state government, and the costs of fixing the problem and treating the damage will be significant. “I think it’s going to be six months to a year until lead concentrations are back below regulatory level” Giammar estimated, “and it’s going to take them forever to restore customer confidence.”
However, the most severe consequences of this disaster will be felt by the children of Flint who were exposed to the hazardous water. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, as it damages early development of the brain and nervous system. Many children continue to be affected by lead in paint, toys, and furniture. Lead exposure has been linked to lower IQ, antisocial behavior, and poor performance in school. According to Giammar, no level of lead exposure is safe. Since the city of Flint switched their water source in April 2014, the proportion of children with blood lead levels above the alarming 5 micrograms per deciliter has doubled. Many of these children are likely to be impaired for life, and when factoring in the potential costs of special education, increase in crime, and lost economic productivity due to lower potential, the true costs of this crisis skyrocket. The World Health Organization cites an analysis that estimates the cost of lead poisoning in the United States at $43 billion per year.
The city of Flint will soon be able to restore their water quality. However, some citizens will be suffering the effects of the crisis long after the river is clean. Flint leadership failed to properly test and treat the Flint river water prior to distribution, and many of the people who were exposed to the lead-contaminated water may be permanently crippled. Hopefully the situation in Flint will serve as a reminder to cities that aim to change water sources that proper testing and retesting can save lives and prevent public health emergencies. As Professor Giammar advises, “[a]ssume the worst before you know that things are safe.”