The Flint water crisis

February 15th, 2016

Something in the water

Many of us take water for granted. If we want safe, reliable water we simply turn on the faucet. Imagine that the water flowing out of the faucets in your home had a horrible odor, like rotting fish or gasoline. Imagine that one day the water was yellow, another day green, and other days blue or various shades of brown. The residents of Flint, Michigan, don’t have to imagine that nightmare scenario; they have experienced it. Those who live in Flint no longer take water for granted.

The problems began with a budget crisis. The city was $15 million in debt, so in 2011 Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency city manager who had extraordinary powers to run the city. One cost-saving measure was to change the source of Flint’s water. For decades the city has been buying water from the city of Detroit, which treated water from Lake Huron. Detroit was facing fiscal challenges of its own and increased its charges to Flint and other Michigan cities, nearly doubling Flint’s charges between 2004 and 2013. In the spring of 2013, Flint decided to join a new, regional water authority, which would build a pipeline from Lake Huron but wouldn’t be completed until 2016. The state-appointed emergency manager at the time suggested the city take water from the Flint River. The water from the Flint River has a high chloride level, and the chlorideladen water corroded the lead pipes, leaching toxins into the water supply. “When they changed, almost immediately the taste, the odor, the color were different,” Flint resident Jackie Pemberton told a reporter from Time magazine.

Soon problems mounted. The city urged residents to boil water before drinking it after elevated levels of E. coli were discovered. The local General Motors plant stopped using city water because it was causing damage to car parts. Local schools started using bottled water. Complaints poured in, and by March 2015 the city council voted to return to using water from Detroit. The emergency manager, a different manager than the one who suggested using water from the Flint River, overruled the council’s decision, saying such a move would bankrupt the city. In June, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an internal memo that Flint’s water had high levels of lead because the state had not monitored properly. The state didn’t change course, and the EPA chose to influence state officials quietly “behind the scenes” instead of making those findings public.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center, determined that Flint children had high levels of lead in their systems. Days after her warning came out in September 2015, the city issued an advisory about the high level of lead in the water supply. By then the problem had been growing for nearly a year and a half.

“They were being neglected,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Moms were complaining. People were going to town-hall meetings and getting arrested. But nobody listened to them. It had to take evidence that their children were being poisoned for people to listen, and that is too late.”

The danger of lead

“Lead is particularly dangerous because once it gets into a person’s system, it is distributed throughout the body just like helpful minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc,” according to children’s health provider the Nemours Foundation. Lead in the bloodstream “can damage red blood cells and limit their ability to carry oxygen to the organs and tissues that need it, thus causing anemia.” According to the Mayo Clinic, the potential effects of lead poisoning in children include “developmental delays, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, and hearing loss.” Lead poisoning in adults can lead to “high blood pressure, abdominal pain, constipation, joint pains, muscle pain, declines in mental functioning, pain or numbness of the extremities, headaches, memory loss, mood disorders, reduced sperm count, abnormal sperm, miscarriage or premature birth.” Lead poisoning is particularly dangerous in children younger than six; lead can damage their rapidly growing brains, potentially leading to diminished ability to concentrate and possibly even lowered IQ.

“The first step in treating all degrees of lead poisoning is to remove the source of the contamination,” according to the Mayo Clinic. For children and adults with low levels of lead poisoning, simply eliminating more exposure to lead is enough to reduce the levels of lead in the blood. For those with higher levels of lead poisoning, health professionals may recommend one of two treatments: chelation therapy (“medication that binds with the lead so that it’s excreted in your urine”) or EDTA therapy, in which the patient is treated with one or more of three different medications. EDTA therapy is only recommended for those with very high levels of lead in their bloodstream and who may need more than one treatment. While these treatments can be effective in many patients, the Mayo Clinic warns that in “severe cases, however, it may not be possible to reverse damage that has already occurred.” 

Owning the problem

Governor Snyder, in speaking to the people of Flint, asserted, “Government failed you — federal, state and local leaders — by breaking the trust you placed in us.” Others argue that the failure rests primarily with the state. “You cannot separate what happened in Flint from the state’s extreme emergency-management law,” said Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan. “The state was in charge of the city,” said Eric Scorsone, a government professor at Michigan State University. “So the state kind of has to own the problem.” Some, including the Reverend Charles Williams III, blame the state’s governor, who appointed all four emergency managers who have controlled the decision-making in Flint since 2011. Williams believes that the only way Snyder can legitimately stay in office is for him to “move to Flint, and take a shower right now.”

Dana Milbank, a columnist with The Washington Post, wrote, “The Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally. It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business.” Milbank states that while the EPA should have made their warnings public, it was Snyder and those he appointed who made the fateful decisions.

Guyette agrees that the governor’s businesslike approach, with the focus on the bottom line, is a problem. “The bottom line is making sure the banks and bond holders get paid at all costs, even if the kids are poisoned with foul river water.”

Fixing the problem

“Our trust has been broken in the city of Flint,” said newly elected mayor Karen Weaver, “and until we get safe pipes, people are not going to trust the water.” Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech University, said that the first step in fixing Flint’s water system is to discover exactly where all the pipes are. The city will need to recoat the pipes with a protective film for a short-term fix or replace every inch of pipe in the water system. According to CNN, Flint has switched back to Lake Huron as the source for water; however, the highly corrosive waters of the Flint River have already damaged the pipes, and lead levels are still high.

CNN reports that more than 210,000 new and replacement water filters have been distributed. According to NBC News, since the cost of filters can be hundreds of dollars, Swiss scientist Raffaele Mezzenga believes his new filter, designed to remove lead and other contaminants, can be made cheaply enough for everyone to purchase. In the meantime, NPR reports that families in Flint are relying on bottled water for everything. Church volunteers are handing out thousands of bottles of water brought to them in 18-wheeler trucks each day.

In addition to cleaning the water, fixing the pipes, and investigating what went wrong, an important aspect of fixing the problem involves dealing with the health issues. Groups such as the Flint Child Health and Development Fund have emerged to “address and mitigate the short and long-term impacts,” according to CNN. Dr. Hanna-Attisha sees hope for the future of Flint’s children if we take a “whole child approach” to ensure that these children have quality education and wholesome food —although such a goal is easier said than done.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus