Flint, Michigan is a city of around 100,000 inhabitants located about 66 miles northwest of Detroit. The city is the birthplace of automobile giant General Motors as well as the hometown of entertainer Terry Crews and NBA player Javale Mcgee. The city has suffered through economic woes in the last two decades, resulting in two separate states of emergency in the last 15 years. However, for most of its life, Flint has been relatively absent from any sort of national notoriety. That all changed in 2015.
The Flint water crisis hit the front pages in 2015, shocking the nation. However, Flint had been having problems with its water for years previous. In 2014, the city switched its water supply to the Flint River. However, later in the year, there were two separate cases of disease-causing bacteria in Flint’s water, causing the city to issue boil warnings. Among the problems that caused the contamination was the fact that Flint’s water system had leaky valves and pipes that were susceptible to bacteria buildup. The city increased the amount of chlorine in the water in order to kill the bacteria and make the water safe again. This led to General Motors halting use of the city’s water because the increased level of chlorine corroded engine parts.
In January 2015, the city warned citizens that byproducts of the disinfectants in the water could possibly lead to cancer. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department offered to reconnect the city’s water system back to Lake Huron and was even willing to waive a $4 million reconnection fee. However, the city declined, claiming that even with the fee waiver, it would be extremely costly to the city. In February, Flint resident, Lee-Anne Walters had water from her home tested and it was found to have 114 ppb (parts per billion) of lead which is almost 7 times higher than the federal limit. Less than a month later, another test revealed that the water had 397 ppb of lead.
Less than a week after the second test, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to stop using water from the Flint River but the city manager overruled the vote, saying that costs would skyrocket and claiming that “water from Detroit is no safer than water from Flint.” In June, an EPA manager released a memo warning that the city was not providing corrosion control to counteract the lead in the water. Further tests done in Ms. Walters’ home found levels of lead as high as 13,200 ppb of lead. Anything over 5,000 ppb is officially classified as hazardous waste by the EPA.
In September 2015, a team from the Hurley Medical Center released a study that showed that the number of children with increased levels of lead in their blood had double ever since the city switched the water supply to the Flint River. A few weeks later, the city switched back to the Detroit water system and in December 2015, Flint declared a state of emergency. Today, lead levels in the water are now within federal limits and Flint’s aging water pipes are in the process of being replaced. A federal judge approved an agreement that would require the state to inspect the water pipes of at least 18,000 homes and replace those made of lead and galvanized steel. The state is required to set aside $87 million for this undertaking with the money coming from both state and federal funds. The city is also reserving an extra $10 million in case it is necessary. The agreement as stipulates that Michigan continue to run 9 bottled water and filter centers until at least May 1. This agreement is a step in the right direction but the repercussions of this public health disaster are far from over
Flint citizens are still encouraged to use filtered water for drinking and cooking but in many cases the damage is already done. Lead can have long-lasting effects on the human body and since many folks had no idea about the poison in their water, they may have consumed extremely large amounts of lead without knowing it. The normal level of lead in the bloodstream for an adult is 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Flint citizen Aaron Stinson had 27 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, nearly 3 times the level that is considered safe. What’s more concerning is the fact that there is no “safe” level of lead for children. According to the World Health Organization, exposing children to lead can lead to brain damage, decreased IQ, and behavioral problem.. At lower levels of exposure, there are no outward symptoms which can lull folks into a sense of security. However, the adverse effects of lead exposure could still be taking place. Children in Flint are at an extremely high risk of developing health problems because of the extent of their exposure.
Citizens of Flint continue to ask questions of their government as to how this disaster could have happened. Investigators have filed over 40 criminal charges against individuals involved in the water debacle. 6 people were accused of hiding or ignoring tests that showed high lead levels in Flint residents’ blood as well as tampering with water test results sent to the federal government. 4 people had felony charges brought against them including two former emergency city managers. These two city managers conspired with 2 city officials to get Flint’s water source switched to the Flint River. The two city managers were informed multiple times that the city’s water department wasn’t ready to make the switch but they went ahead with the switch anyway in an attempt to save money. These folks endangered tens of thousands of people’s lives in an attempt to save a few bucks.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission released a report on the water crisis, detailing the reasons they believed this crisis occurred as well as giving recommendations as to what should be done next. The commission held that race and segregation were some of the factors at the root of the crisis. They explored several main areas in their study: implicit bias, the history of segregated housing and education in Flint, environmental justice, and the emergency manager law. The commission held that a city composed of mostly minorities like Flint is would be more likely to have their worries ignored by the government. The commission claimed that a public health crisis of this magnitude would not have been allowed to happen in Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids. The commission decried the lack of environmental justice in Flint, saying that Flint citizens had no meaningful input into decisions that would affect them intimately. The emergency city manager law also came under fire, being criticized for placing the economic welfare of the city of the health and safety of its citizens. The commission’s recommendations are extensive, ranging from introducing policies that take into account the effects of past racism to replacing or restructuring Michigan’s emergency manager law. Time will tell if they are adopted.
The road ahead for Flint is filled with uncertainties. With criminal investigations still ongoing and water still not clean, transparency and honesty as well as collaboration with its citizens must be the order of the day for the Flint and Michigan governments. A renewed focus on the health and safety of all its citizens is the only way for everyone to begin to move forward.