Weeks after the city of Flint, Michigan, began sourcing its water from the Flint River, residents began complaining about what was coming out of the tap. The water was discolored, it smelled foul and it tasted strange. And some of the 100,000 people in Flint developed strange new ailments, including rashes and hair loss.
Even General Motors, a local manufacturer, complained about the water and stopped using it because it was damaging car parts manufactured in their plant.
For months, state and city officials denied there was a problem — until researchers at Virginia Tech discovered the drinking water contained dangerously high levels of lead and a local pediatrician discovered spiked levels of lead in the blood of Flint children.
The Flint water crisis is widely regarded as one of the worst manmade environmental and public health disasters in American history, and sadly, it was completely preventable.
What Caused the Flint Water Crisis?
The Flint water crisis started in 2014 when city officials switched the city’s water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River to save money but failed to add anti-corrosive agents to the water.
Without the proper chemicals, the acidic water eroded peoples’ aging pipes and leached dangerous levels of lead into the water. Bacterial contamination and contamination from byproducts of disinfectants also plagued the water.
At the time, the cash-strapped city was building a new water pipeline to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint, and the cheaper river water was supposed to be a temporary fix until the pipeline was finished. City officials vowed the water was safe to drink and promised residents they wouldn’t notice any difference in water quality.
But the differences were profound. Almost immediately, residents reported that the water looked, tasted and smelled bad.
Bethany Hazard told MLive Media Group that her tap water was murky or foamy at times and she had started buying bottled water for drinking. Others complained of water that smelled like rotten eggs or had an orange or brown tint to it.
By fall 2014, General Motors, which operated a factory in Flint, was also complaining about the water. The water was causing engine blocks to visibly rust. Factory employees worried what the water was doing to their bodies if it was doing this to car engines.
Water from the Flint River made some people sick. LeeAnne Walters’ 4-year-old twin boys developed itchy, scaly rashes any time they bathed and her teenage son was in and out of the hospital, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Soon, Walters and her teenage daughter began losing clumps of hair. Eventually, even Walters’ eyelashes fell out.
When city officials tested her tap water in February 2015, they detected lead at 104 parts per billion (ppb). The top acceptable limit is 15 ppb, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When they retested it in March 2015, the concentration of lead in her water had climbed to 397 ppb, and by April, it had risen to 707 ppb. The highest lead level found in Flint was an astounding 13,000 ppb.
But city officials brushed off the findings.
“Regardless of this information and the fact that my son had lead poisoning, the city and the [Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] still continued to tell everyone the water was safe, as the EPA sat by and watched in silence,” Walters would later tell a Congressional committee investigating the matter.
Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning because their brains and neurological systems are still developing and they’re small in size. Exposure to lead can cause brain damage, developmental disabilities, coma, seizures and even death.
Walters’ children weren’t the only ones in danger.
Research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, showed the gravity of the unfolding crisis. She compared the blood work of nearly 1,800 Flint children before and after the water switch. Hanna-Attisha found that the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or more had doubled since the city changed its water source. In some areas of the city, it had tripled.
Nearly 9,000 children in Flint were exposed to toxic levels of lead for 18 months, the impacts of which might not be known for years. Hanna-Attisha told the American Academy of Pediatrics that early on, kids with lead poisoning are asymptomatic.
“We’re not going to see the impact until five years, when the kid needs special education, or in 10 years when they have ADHD or in 15 years when they’re in the criminal justice system,” she told AAP News.
Other Contaminants: Bacteria and Carcinogens
Lead wasn’t the only contaminant found in Flint’s water. In August and September of 2014, the city of Flint issued boil water advisories because the water was tainted with coliform bacteria, also known as E. coli. The bacteria, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms, suggest that the water supply was contaminated with either human or animal feces.
The city issued yet another boil water advisory on Jan. 2, 2015, because of high concentrations of trihalomethanes, which are chemical byproducts of chlorine disinfection methods. Trihalomethanes are colorless and odorless but have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals, according to the EPA.
An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease also affected the city between 2014 and 2015. At least 90 people became sick and 12 died. Scientists believe low chlorine levels in the water caused the outbreak of the deadly bug, which causes a severe form of pneumonia in people with poor immune systems.
Unfortunately, the government was slow to respond to the growing crisis.
Between January and June 2015, lead sampling performed by the city of Flint showed that levels of lead in the city’s water “were rapidly rising,” according to a report by the EPA.
Around that time, EPA staffers expressed concern to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the city of Flint that the lead levels were increasing and that the system lacked an important corrosion control element. The federal agency even offered its expertise to help improve water quality.
But state and city officials continued to drag their feet. It wasn’t until September 2015 that the city announced it would implement corrosion control techniques and notified residents that the water was contaminated with lead.
Flint Water Crisis Timeline
April 25, 2014
Flint switches to the Flint River for its main water source.
- August/September 2014City issues boil water advisories after bacterial contamination of water is discovered.
- Oct. 13, 2014General Motors says it will no longer use water from the Flint River because of machine corrosion.
- Jan. 2, 2015High levels of trihalomethanes are detected in the water in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
- Feb. 25, 2015City tests detect high levels of lead in tap water.
- Sept. 8, 2015Virginia Tech researchers announce high levels of lead in 101 out of 252 water samples from Flint.
- Sept. 24, 2015Doctors reveal they’ve found high levels of lead in Flint children’s bloodstreams and urge Flint to stop using Flint River for water system.
- Sept. 25, 2015Flint issues lead advisory to citizens.
- Oct. 16, 2015Flint reconnects to Detroit water system.
- Dec. 14, 2015Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declares state of emergency.
- Dec. 29, 2015Dan Wyant, director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and spokesman Brian Wurfel, resign.
- Jan. 5, 2016Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declares a state of emergency for Genesee County.
- Jan. 12, 2016Snyder activates the Michigan National Guard to assist with water and filter distribution.
- Jan. 16, 2016President Obama declares an emergency in the state of Michigan.
Replacing Lead Pipes
In April 2019, after two years of providing bottled water to its residents, the city of Flint declared its tap water safe again for drinking, but signs of the crisis are still visible. Crews in yellow vests continue to dig up streets to replace lead-tainted and galvanized steel pipes leading to Flint homes.
As of May 30, 2019, the city had managed to explore 21,524 service lines and replaced 8,434 lead-tainted lines under its FAST Start Pipe Replacement Program. The city estimates it will need to replace a total of about 12,000 lead or steel pipes, so it’s a little more than two-thirds done.
But the pipe replacement efforts have also come under scrutiny.
Contractors had been identifying and replacing lead pipes at a good pace in 2017 thanks in large part to an artificial intelligence system that helped predict where lead pipes were most likely located, according to a 2019 article in The Atlantic. However, in 2018, a new contractor scrapped that method at the city’s behest and began digging more broadly across the city’s wards. The lead-pipe hit rate plummeted from roughly 70 percent in 2017 to about 15 percent in December 2018.
The change appears to have been in large part driven by a perception problem. Although the predictive model was working well and getting lead pipes identified and replaced quickly, some residents didn’t understand why a neighbor’s pipes were being replaced but theirs weren’t.
So the mayor decided that contractors should excavate every house in areas where lead was possible, rather than skipping over some homes where lead was unlikely.
Indictments and Lawsuits
As of 2019, the Michigan state attorney general had charged 15 state and local officials for their part in the Flint water crisis. Seven of those 15 people, however, have cut no contest plea deals with prosecutors and will serve no time.
8 Officials Still Facing Charges as of April 2019
- Gerald Ambrose
- the former Flint emergency manager, faces charges of conspiracy, misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty and false pretenses.
- Patrick Cook
- formerly of the Department of Environmental Quality, faces charges of misconduct in office, willful neglect of duty and conspiracy.
- Howard Croft
- the former director of public works for Flint, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy.
- Darnell Early
- the former emergency manager of Flint, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and false pretenses.
- Nick Lyon
- the former director of the state health department and the highest ranking official charged, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.
- Nancy Peeler
- the former director of the Program for Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting, faces charges of misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
- Robert Scott
- a former data manager for the state health department’s Health Homes and Lead Prevention Program, faces charges of misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty.
- Dr. Eden Wells
- former Michigan chief medical executive, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, obstruction of justice, lying to a peace officer and misconduct in office.
The involuntary manslaughter charges stem from the deaths of people who contracted Legionnaires’ disease.
In the meantime, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against Michigan and the city of Flint, and in April, a federal judge said Flint residents may proceed with a lawsuit against the EPA. The lawsuit claims the federal agency was slow and negligent in responding to the crisis.
In her decision, U.S. District Judge Linda Parker noted that the “injury caused by the lead-contaminated public water supply system will affect the residents for years and likely generations to come.”
“While this Court will not decide today the issue of ultimate liability, it can today state with certainty that the acts leading to the creation of the Flint Water Crisis, alleged to be rooted in lies, recklessness and profound disrespect have and will continue to produce a heinous impact for the people of Flint,” Parker wrote.Last Modified: September 10, 2019
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