Water Contamination in Flint, Mich.- An Environmental Blunder Permanently Impacting 100,000 People

By: Hannah Remmert

Think about how often you use tap water every day- taking a shower, brushing your teeth, cooking, cleaning, drinking. Now imagine that water is incredibly toxic and poisoning your body, day after day. Luckily we have only to imagine such an alarming scenario, unlike the citizens of Flint, Michigan who for the past year and a half lived the reality of extreme water contamination.

The story begins in April 2014. Flint, Mich. decided to change their water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River, a switch originally planned to save money for the city. However shortly after the change residents began noticing certain oddities about the water such as the color, taste and smell. People began reporting rashes from their tap water.

In August and September 2014, city officials declared a boil-water advisory after certain bacteria were detected in the water. In early January 2015, Detroit’s water system offered to reconnect the city of Flint, waiving the $4 million connection fee. Flint declined the offer.

Things became progressively worse throughout 2015. The EPA ran multiple tests on the water, finding large amounts of lead each time. A professor from Virginia Tech reports that the corrosiveness of water was causing lead to leach into the supply. Doctors of Flint urged the city to stop using water from Flint River, as they were finding high levels of lead in the blood of children.

Why then, if the city was aware of toxicity of their water, did they continue using it for so long? The blame easily falls on the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and other government agencies of the state.

MDEQ disputed the Virginia Tech professor’s claims about the corrosive water causing lead to get into the water. MDEQ and the Michigan Department of Community Health insisted the water was safe despite the evidence of lead poisoning provided by local doctors. It wasn’t until last October that Flint urged residents to stop using the tap water and began distributing filters to residents. Two weeks later Flint finally reconnected to Detroit’s water.

In December, Flint added more corrosion controlling chemicals and declared an emergency. The director of the state environment agency also resigned. In January 2016, President Obama declared an official state of emergency and allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide up to $5 million in aid.

Although citizens have received aid and the city is on its way to restoring clean water, the damage caused by this government oversight is irreparable. Effects of lead poisoning are irreversible, and a city of approximately 100,000 people were exposed for nearly two years; 27,000 of which are children.

When lead enters the body, it is incorporated into the tissues and can affect essentially every organ, with having particularly severe effects on the brain and peripheral nervous system. Lead can alter our mitochondria, which provide energy to brain cells, causing them to stop functioning correctly. Lead can also affect neurotransmitter release and synapse formation which lead to decreased brain functions. Lead can even reside in the placenta of expecting mothers, which can poison the fetus and the child will be born with lead in its body. Lead poisoning is particularly severe in children and can lead to loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and disruption of behavior.

At the peak of the crisis, tests by both state and federal environmental protection officers found extremely high levels of lead in the water ranging from 153 parts per billion to more than 4,000 parts per billion. If tap water contains lead at levels exceeding 15 parts per billion, the federal Center for Disease Control recommends taking action to minimize exposure to lead in the water, although no level of lead is considered safe.

While most of us understand that exposure to lead can be very dangerous, some people may not realize how the water becomes contaminated.

In Flint’s case, it began with the corrosiveness of the Flint River. This is somewhat due to the the high levels of chloride. Chloride is often found in road salts and is known to be very corrosive to iron and other heavy metals. Many water distributors add a corrosion inhibitor chemical (orthophosphate) in order to prevent the corrosion of pipes. Flint did not do this. Thus, the highly corrosive water began to eat away at the piping of the city.

Lead has historically been used in piping since it is very malleable and is easy to shape. Prior to 1986 and the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act, lead was commonly used in solder joints for pipes. While it is no longer used in construction today, buildings built prior to 1980s may still contain lead parts in piping; joints, fixtures, or the pipes themselves could all potentially contain lead.

That was the case for Flint. The Flint River began to corrode pipes, which released both lead and iron into the tap water. The iron that was released was responsible for the rusty color of Flint’s water. While iron in water does not pose immediate health affects like lead, iron corrosion does consume chlorine, which is added to water to prevent the growth of microorganisms which can cause disease. High levels of iron in Flint’s water negated the chlorine, which led to the growth of harmful bacteria in their water.

Though the impact of Michigan’s poor environmental decisions will last for years to come, hopefully their story can serve as a lesson for other communities that environmental issues are not something to be taken lightly.


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