Written by: Sara Dennis
The City of Flint, Michigan has been in the news for having high levels of lead in its drinking water. However this problem isn’t an isolated problem, it prevails in many other cities too, such as Sebring, Ohio, Brick Township, New Jersey and more. Typically, part of the problem is caused by old pipes, through which lead can leach into water. Though congress banned lead water pipes in 1986, millions are of older lines are still in use throughout the United States. Most often problems begin with a change in the water source or treatment process changes, which alter how the water interacts with the pipes, leaving them vulnerable to leaching. Additionally, funds and budgets for water treatment are getting tighter and tighter. According to the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, 17 states have cut drinking water budgets by more than 20%, 27 states have cut spending on full-time employees, and lastly federal officials have reduced drinking water grants.
What Happened in Flint
In April 2014, the City of Flint, Michigan switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money, until a new pipeline from Lake Huron was built. The new water source from the Flint River contained corrosive water (due to high levels of chloride, possibly from road salt pollution during winter) causing lead to leach out of aging pipes into the household water supply of thousands of homes. After the switch, citizens quickly noticed the difference in the now dark and poor-tasting water, in addition to an increase in skin rashes and hair loss. By October 2014, the General Motors Truck Assembly plant stopped using the Flint tap water because it was corroding engine parts.
In 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech conducted a study of the water by testing homes throughout the city. They found that 40% of the homes had water that contained elevated levels of lead, 5 parts per billion (ppb), indicating a serious problem. Additionally, approximately 17% of the homes measured were above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “action level” of 15 ppb, which indicates corrective measures must be taken. Some samples had over 100 times the amount of lead as the action level. In September 2015, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, released a study that found elevated blood-lead levels in children citywide, which had almost doubled since before the water switch, and had tripled in some neighborhoods. Also plaguing Flint during this time was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, an intense form of pneumonia, which has also been linked to the Flint River water supply. It was the third largest Legionnaires’ disease breakout in US history, killing 12 people and infecting at least 87 people.
It’s estimated that close to 9000 children drank lead contaminated water for 18 months. Lead exposure is linked to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, reduced fertility, as well as heart and kidney disease in adults. Children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure because it can impair brain and nervous system development in fetuses, infants and young children. This can cause lifetime impacts such as anemia, hearing problems, cardiovascular and behavioral issues, in addition to reduced IQ and slowed physical growth.
In October 2015, then-Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill to reconnect Flint’s water to Detroit’s water supply. Later, in late 2015 and early 2016, Mayor Karen Weaver, Governor Snyder and finally, President Obama, all declared a state of emergency for Flint and the country it resides in. These actions brought in the Michigan National Guard to help distribute clean water and allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help provide resources and equipment to Flint.
In January 2018, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality released a study of the water quality claiming that in the first half of 2017, 90% of the water samples were at or below 7 ppb, indicating that water quality was back to normal. A few months later in April, Governor Snyder declared the end of the free bottled water distribution in the city. However, in 2018 Gretchen Whitmer was elected as Governor, and she has pledged to restore the free water distribution program for Flint Residents. Her first act as Governor, in 2019, was to sign an executive directive that requires state employees to immediately inform threats to public health or safety to their superiors, to prevent similar mistakes within the government that lead to the crisis.
Note: The Flint water crisis is incredibly complicated. There were other issues with the water, such as contamination from TTHM (total trihalomethanes, which are disinfection byproducts, some carcinogenic) and coliform bacteria, as well as lawsuits suing city and state officials, that were not discussed in this article in the interest of brevity. Additionally, 15 city and state employees were charged for causing or contributing to the crisis.
Our next article provides information about how to learn more about your water supply, what to do if you think something is wrong, and other preventative measures you can take. We’ve also written about the state of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States.
1. Denchak, Melissa. “Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know.” National Resources Defense Council, National Resources Defense Council, 16 Nov. 2018.
2. Kennedy, Merrit. “Lead-Laced Water In Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A Crisis.” NPR, NPR, 20 Apr. 2016.
3. Laylin, Tafline. “How Michigan's Flint River Came to Poison a City.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Jan. 2016.
4. Wines, Michael, and John Schwartz. “Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to Flint.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017.