President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Flint, Michigan. This new development comes a day after Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced last Friday that he’ll be opening an extra large can of justice with a detailed investigation to determine whether any state laws were violated in connection to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“The situation in Flint is a human tragedy in which families are struggling with even the most basic parts of daily life. While everyone acknowledges that mistakes were made, my duty as attorney general requires that I conduct this investigation.” – Bill Schuette
The President’s declaration may come as a disappointment for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who was seeking the status of a major disaster for the city of Flint (and not his political career). With Flint now in a federally declared state of emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is finally authorized to help coordinate all disaster relief efforts and provide additional resources to Genesee County. This federal aid includes $5 million to provide water, filters, and other items to affected residents for up to 90 days, which is significantly less than the $96 million Governor Snyder was hoping for along with a disaster declaration. Flint’s ongoing water crisis with lead contaminated water was deemed ineligible to be declared a major disaster because it was a man-made disaster that Snyder, his administration, and Flint city officials have come under intense scrutiny for their slow response in handling the matter.
A recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, a type of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria, has claimed ten lives in the area, prompting state officials to investigate whether the outbreak is a direct result of Flint’s contaminated water supply. This, however, is only one of the many problems the city is facing.
Governor Snyder had sought $54.6 million as part of his $96 million request to repair damaged lead service lines in private areas and an even larger $712.8 million estimate was made to replace the city’s aging public water infrastructure. In a city where about 100,000 people are living in poverty, on top of a declining population, it’s going to be an uphill battle to find resources to repair or replace all of the damaged water lines that have been leaching lead into the water supply since 2014.
How the Flint Water Crisis Started
As with nearly everything in life, this problem started with money. The city of Flint, located about 70 miles from the Great Lakes, was strapped for cash and Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz officially signed off on a city council approved plan to stop purchasing the city’s water from Detroit and join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) in April 2013. This plan included a new 3-year pipeline project intended to carry water from Lake Huron to the city and save Flint $19 million over the course of eight years. Shortly after joining the KWA, Detroit notified the city that they will stop selling water to the city after one year, forcing Flint to invest several more millions of dollars to find a temporary supply of water.
A Flint River Runs Through It
With the big switch to Lake Huron still a couple years away, Flint’s new plan was to pump water from the Flint River into an upgraded water treatment plant before it distributing it to the city. On April 25, 2014, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling officially switched from Detroit water and began pumping out treated water from Flint River.
“It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply.” – Dayne Walling.
It would have been a good plan had Flint River not already been a bit of a joke to many of the city’s native population. They’ve known for years that the river was polluted, but city officials reassured its citizens that the water plant was appropriately treating the water for public consumption. Then the complaints began pouring in.
Brown Water to Lead Water
A few weeks had passed since the switch to the Flint River source before reports of residents buying bottled water came flooding in. People were complaining about the awful taste and odor. These complaints, however, still weren’t enough for Mayor Walling and state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley to take seriously. The city’s top officials continued to tell the public that the tap water was safe to drink. Now, four months out, fecal coliform bacteria was discovered in the water supply of Flint’s west side, prompting city health officials to issue a boil-water advisory to residents. The city added more chlorine to correct the problem and flushed the water through fire hydrants.
By fall of 2014, a General Motors engine plant had struck its own deal to purchase water from Lake Huron citing fears that Flint River water is corrosive. That should have been the tipping point, when a major corporation tells you your water is bad for business, but the litany of public complains and health warnings continued on well into the new year. Detroit Water and Sewerage even made an offer to the city to resell its water free of the $4 million reconnection fee, but was ultimately rejected.
The city’s water crisis finally entered Code Brown as many residents were now complaining about their tap water having a brown discoloration. Millions of more dollars were invested to try and fix the problem, but remained ineffective. Lawsuits were filed in an attempt to reconnect the city’s water system back to Detriot, but were unsuccessful.
As September rolled around, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards released his study further fanning the flames of protest over Flint’s water crisis. Edwards’ study claimed that the corrosiveness of Flint River water was damaging the city’s old lead constructed water lines, which was now leaching the toxic element directly into the already polluted water as its drawn from the tap. It would take about another month before Governor Snyder would announce a plan to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system, but the damage was already done.
Where the Water Went Wrong
If you’re like me, you’re probably eagerly waiting for Hollywood to make sense of the situation with an Oscar-bait movie or a new Netflix documentary series. The sad part is that the movie will probably be released before the citizens of Flint can put this water crisis behind them. Public officials aren’t exactly sure what went wrong, or are unwilling to admit what happened, but it is generally agreed upon that the water from Flint River was not being treated with an anti-corrosive agent before it was distributed across the city.
As the polluted water was pumped throughout the city, the water was corroding the iron water mains. What many people thought was sewage in their water actually turned out to be excessive amounts of iron that was turning their water brown. The iron was the least of their problems, however, as many of the pre-1980s pipes connecting homes and businesses to the water mains were either made of lead or had lead solder connections that were now leaching into the water.
Lead Poisoning and You!
Just for the record, lead is bad for you unless you’ve got a death wish, then it’s a totally metal way to go out. Lead poisoning in humans is caused by increased levels of lead, a known heavy metal, which interferes and damages the body in a variety of ways listed in glorious bullet points:
- Toxic to bones and organs
- Interferes with the development of the nervous system
- Causes learning or behavior disorders
- Abdominal pain
- Confusion and headache
- Seizures, coma, and/or death
While there’s bound to be some traces of lead in drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed an acceptable 5 parts per billion as their borderline. Detroit’s water was tested to contain 2.3 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, which is well below the EPA’s borderline, but is still a slight cause for concern for young children who are highly susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning. Out of the 271 homes tested in Flint during the summer of 2014, Flint water contained 27 ppb–over five times the EPA’s acceptable limit. That’s an alarming rate until you consider Virginia Tech’s test results that found homes with lead readings ranging from 200 ppb to 13,000 ppb, which is above the 5,000 level of what the EPA considers to be hazardous waste.
What Can Be Done Now?
If you’re in the Flint, Michigan area, get you and/or your children tested for lead poisoning. With only two percent of the city’s population tested so far during this lead contamination water crisis, 43 kids have been found with elevated lead levels in their blood, which can lead to mental and physical problems down the line. Older people should also be tested as they are more likely to develop neurological problems.
As for the short term, Flint residents can only try reduce their exposure to their tap water during the continuing water crisis. Since the pipes have already been damaged, returning to Detroit water will do little to prevent lead levels from drastically declining until new pipes can be installed. Federal aid could definitely help ramp up the process of replacing corroded lines, as well as finishing that pipeline to connect the city’s water supply to Lake Huron, which was what they were aiming to do from the start.
Despite being charged for contaminated water, the city says that the water is safe enough to bathe in, but not drink. This is why so much effort has been put into giving Flint residents bottled water and filters, especially to those who can’t afford to purchase a large supply of bottled water on their own.
How Effective are Water Filters?
Water filters can be very effective at eliminating a host of contaminants from your water and can be a more cost-effective way to get clean drinking water over a bottled water. Activated carbon (or charcoal) is an ingredient in some high performing filters and does a great job at absorbing contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, chlorine, colors, odors, and organic chemicals.
For removing contaminants like cysts and lead, you need to look for NSF certified activated carbon and be certain of its contaminant reduction ability. In a previous post, we showed how to create a homemade biofilter to treat contaminated water using gravel, sand, and (you guessed it) activated carbon. The results are promising, but requires some maintenance, home water testing, and produces only a few gallons a day. However, if your water is packing over 5,000 ppb of lead, any commercial water filter or homemade biofilter with activated carbon may significantly reduce that toxic lead level, but it likely won’t get you below an acceptable drinking level alone.
What is There Left to Do?
If you can, invest in a better water filtration system or a water dispenser with a clean supply of bottled water to drink from. Boiling your water won’t help remove the any amount of lead it may contain, but may kill off any viruses or harmful bacteria present. If you can’t invest in a filter or dispenser, try building your own homemade filter to supplement your water supply. To be on the safe side, you should also get your water tested with helpful home water testing kits to see what other actions you can take to purify your water.
Outside of these tactics, try to manage your clean water supply as best you can during any water crisis by rationing it out or limiting how many showers you take a week. Taking less showers or baths will also minimize your exposure to contaminated water. Residents can also petition government officials to seek action and assistance, as well as doing research to see what support is currently available for affected areas.
Donate to Flint!
Concerned people outside of Genesee County are encouraged to help out by whatever means they can through local charities or organizations. The United Way of Genesee County is one group seeking donations through their Flint Water Fund page with 100% of the money going towards the purchase of water filters, water bottles, and emergency support services.
The Community Foundation of Greater Flint is also seeking donations for their Flint Child Health & Development Fund, which will help all of the children with elevated levels of lead in their blood. As mentioned earlier, children exposed to lead can cause problems with bone and muscle development, as well as behavior problems, learning disabilities, and a damaged nervous system.
If you don’t trust other organizations, you can always purchase water bottles, filters, and other supplies and personally distribute them yourself. It’s the only way to make sure the people of Flint are getting the vital help they need to weather this water crisis.