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Flint Water Crisis

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Flint Water Crisis

You can’t mention lead in groundwater without telling the terrible story of Flint, Michigan. Flint has had a rough economic time with General Motors pulling out of the city in the 1980s and this is partially responsible for significant unemployment and high levels of poverty. The city is 57% African American. Minority communities have been subject to terrible inequity in terms of access to clean air and drinking water and Flint is one of the most devastating cases of all.

The city used to derive its water supply from Lake Huron as did the city of Detroit. This high-quality water was very expensive, and as the city was carrying great debt, back in Spring 2014 the state decided to switch the water management agency and at the same time to supply water to the city from the Flint River. Treating water from a river is far more difficult than treating water from a lake and the processing facility wasn’t equipped to handle the poor quality of the river water. In particular the water wasn’t treated with additives to lower its corrosiveness. Moreover the water had very high levels of bacteria. So the end result was the water delivered to the citizens of Flint came out of the faucets dirty, smelling bad and tasting terrible. Even after citizens protested and showed jugs of this nasty water, officials told them the water was safe to drink. Turns out the water was so corrosive that it stripped lead from the antiquated pipe system of the city. In most cities, old pipes have been replaced, but that was not the case in Flint.

The high levels of the bacterial Legionella led to an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease. This waterborne disease causes a severe flu including respiratory, gastrointestinal and even neurological symptoms and it can be fatal. In Flint, 12 people died and almost 90 became sick. There have been numerous investigations of the connections between Legionnaires and the Flint drinking water and in all the most logical finding is that the high bacterial levels were a result of low chlorine in the water because it had reacted with the high lead and iron levels.

Video: Lead In The Water In Flint, Michigan (1:05)

Lead in the water in Flint, Michigan
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But the lead is what is likely to cause the most permanent damage, 100,000 people were exposed to high lead levels including about 9,000 children who drank this dangerous water for up to 18 months. And it took the state 9 months to inform the citizens that they had discovered the lead. Children are more susceptible to long term impact of lead poisoning because their bodies are developing. Lead exposure can cause permanent brain damage, learning and development problems including lower IQ and speech and hearing issues lasting for a lifetime. Tests showed that lead levels had doubled or tripled in Flint children.

The city switched back to old water supply in October 2015 but that was not the end of the story. Lead was still in the water because of the damage to the pipes. The outrage from Flint citizens was a major reason for the state and federal response to the crisis. They joined with environmental and legal groups to petition the EPA to research the environmental impacts and to sue the city and state to provide safe drinking water. And they won. The judge mandated that thousands of lead pipes be replaced and bottled water be delivered to all citizens. Now several years later the legal battles continue with criminal charges pending for numerous city and state leaders. Most of the active lead-bearing pipes have been replaced but even now there is still widespread mistrust surrounding drinking the city water.