Examining the Flint Water Crisis

From the lecture series: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, MD, Emory University

What was supposed to be a routine and cost-effective change for Flint, Michigan’s water supply turned into a catastrophe. Uncover how the Flint water crisis unfolded and how the press acted as a powerful force against the government’s denial.

The Flint Michigan water tower seen through a chain link fenc
(Image: ehrlif/Shutterstock)

The Dangers of Lead

Although “toxin” sounds alarming, it turns out that our bodies are remarkably adept at handling them.

However, there are toxic chemicals in our environment that have had and continue to have, a big impact on human health.

Periodic table element Lead
Lead is a naturally occurring metal found in ores throughout the Earth’s crust. (Image: ElenaTlt/Shutterstock)

One of the best-studied toxic chemicals is lead, a naturally occurring metal found in abundance in ores throughout the Earth’s crust. It’s particularly abundant in the soils near factories in industrialized societies, and until recently was used extensively in gasoline and paint.

In the United States, one of the major sources of lead poisoning is lead-based paint in homes built before 1978. This issue is especially a problem in older homes as they’re renovated when old paint may be sanded down and aerosolized.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, Wondrium.

It’s much better to add layers of paint on top of old lead paint, rather than to scrape or sand it off. Ingested or inhaled lead is especially toxic in children and pregnant women.

Even relatively low levels of exposure can lead to behavioral and learning problems, plus additional health risks to the kidneys, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems.

These dangers are well-known and sufficient ways to monitor lead levels in food and water have been developed. We also have well-established standards to minimize lead exposure. But all of those safeguards fell apart after a fairly routine administrative decision to change the water supply in Flint, Michigan, in 2014.

Learn more about approaches that have never been rigorously studied or have even been disproven

The Origins of the Flint Water Controversy

mLIVE.com is a website that combines stories from several of Michigan’s city newspapers, including The Ann Arbor News and The Flint Journal. Their headline from April 25, 2014, tells the beginning of the story: “Closing the Valve on History: Flint Cuts Water Flow from Detroit after Nearly 50 Years.” 

In a cost-cutting move, city officials had decided to stop buying their water from Detroit—sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River—and instead switched over to a supply from the Flint River. The news story describes how the mayor pressed a small black button, shutting down pumps from a 36-inch water main bringing water from Detroit.

The Flint River in Flint, Michigan.
In a cost-cutting move, city officials decided to switch over to a water supply from the Flint River. (Image: Atomazul/Shutterstock)

Officials had raised glasses of water in celebration. The story included a quote from a state drinking water official, “Individuals shouldn’t notice any difference.”

However, people did notice a difference. A month later, stories reported that some people thought the new water had a stronger chlorine smell, or, as one person was quoted, “It’s just weird.”

Still, news stories stressed that the water met all state quality standards. By January, nine months after the water source change, media coverage was swaying more towards reflecting the concerns of the residents of Flint.

A typical headline read, “Flint Water Problems: Switch Aimed to Save $5 Million—But at What Cost?” That article included a hint of some second thoughts even from the mayor, who said that in hindsight the challenges of treating river water were, quote, “underestimated.”

Learn more about the new water system in Flint, MI

Concerns Increase Over Flint Water Quality

Residents had started to bring bottles of cloudy water to city meetings. Worse, as the article explains, extra chlorine added to the water to fight bacterial contamination had led to an increase in the levels of other organic compounds, and Flint City water had been declared in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

However, significant damage was already being done by a culprit that hadn’t yet been suspected.

By March 2015, the Flint story was getting national attention. The New York Times, under the headline “A Water Dilemma in Michigan: Cloudy or Costly,” began its coverage with a brief interview with a Flint resident.

She said that her water smelled like mothballs or an over-chlorinated pool, and worse, that she was having health problems like rashes and hair falling out, which she thought was caused by the quality of the water.

This paragraph demonstrates the sentiments that followed: “Flint officials insist that the city’s water is safe. They say the issues of odor and color are separate from the question of whether the water meets federal standards, and that no link to health problems has been proved.”

Learn more about how to examine research that supports (or doesn’t) the “risk” headlines 

The Role of Lead in Flint Water Safety

On July 13, 2015, a new concern about Flint water broke into the news.

Michigan Radio’s website used this headline: “Leaked Internal Memo Shows Federal Regulator’s Concerns about Lead in Flint’s Water.” It was referring to a memo from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that documented very high lead levels in one woman’s home, associated with documented lead poisoning in her son.

The memo was leaked, the story said, before the EPA had had a chance to quote “verify and assess the extent” of the problem.

A representative of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said that older homes, older than 30 years, may be at some risk because of lead-containing pipes in solder or service connections and that testing was available for concerned citizens. However, the bottom line from the state’s point of view was that the lead in the water in this home was likely an isolated issue.

But media pressure continued on both a local and national level. Stories appeared about families whose children had tested positive for high blood lead levels, like this story from an ABC affiliate news station: “Flint Mother Says Water Supply Gave Her Son Lead Poisoning.”

In September 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, published an online report of extensive lab testing of the water from Flint, which finally provided some firm answers about what was going on and why it happened.

From the Detroit Free Press article called, “Report Calls Flint’s Water a ‘Public Health Threat,’” the public learned that it was corrosion from the new water supply that allowed lead to leach from old pipes into the water that was flowing from the faucets in Flint homes.

The water, itself, as tested at the Flint water treatment plants, did meet all federal safety standards, at least regarding heavy metals like lead. There were problems with bacterial contamination and other compounds, but this was a separate issue that by then had largely been addressed.

But the water from the Detroit River, which had been used for nearly 50 years, had been treated with additives like phosphorus and other chemicals to make it less corrosive as it flowed through pipes. When city officials switched to Flint River water, they had no corrosion prevention plan in place.

There were no added anti-corrosives. It’s a decision that may continue to affect the quality of Flint water for many years to come.

When water systems were installed in older cities like Detroit and Flint, pipes routinely used metal alloys that included lead. The very word plumber is from a root word that refers to lead, since that metal is common and easy to work with to make pipes.

Sources of lead in drinking water
(Image: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/Public domain)

Lead is also found in the solder that holds pipes together. Over time, the inside of these pipes and the fittings were coated with a mineral residue that prevented lead from leaching out of the pipes. This is why city water in most older cities, like Detroit, is thought to be okay; although there’s lead in the pipes, it can’t get into the water.

But that protective layer can be stripped away if the water is too corrosive, and that’s what happened in Flint. The water itself didn’t have lead in it, and the chemical components of the water itself were well within safety limits.

But the water was unsuitable to be used through an older city’s pipe infrastructure. Without the protective layer within the pipe, about 10 times as much lead could leach out.

Unfortunately, even though Flint switched back to Detroit water by the end of 2015, the damage had already been done.

Media reports focused on the effect of lead exposure on children, who are especially vulnerable to damage to their developing brains. From Michigan Radio, “Flint Pediatricians Raise Alarm about Lead Levels in City Water.”

The article reviewed research from Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, who compared rates of elevated lead levels in children before and after the switch from Detroit River to Flint River water, and found that the rate of elevated levels doubled.

In comparison, the rate of lead poisoning in neighboring communities over the same period hadn’t changed statistically. While her study didn’t prove that Flint water was the culprit, the timing was suggestive, and it jibed with Virginia Tech’s documentation of elevated lead levels in Flint water.

Learn more about the media’s role in improving health

How is the water in Flint since the crisis? Time magazine’s headline reported in 2017, “Flint’s Water Crisis Still Isn’t Over. Here’s Where Things Stand a Year Later.”

The Aftermath of the Flint Crisis

Residents still must use filters to ensure that their water is safe, though Virginia Tech researchers now say that their most recent testing is reassuring. What’s a little more speculative is what the health effects of the months of elevated lead in the drinking water have been and will be in the future.

From The Washington Post, “Flint’s Lead-Poisoned Water Had a Horrifyingly Large Effect on Fetal Deaths, Study Finds.” The Post article focuses on a study looking at fertility and fetal deaths in Flint during the time when pregnant women were exposed to elevated lead levels and comparing that to neighboring cities.

They found a 58% increase in fetal deaths. It is also known that children exposed to lead can have permanent losses in intelligence and long-term behavioral issues.

There’s substantial evidence that early lead exposure could be one of the top risk factors for later delinquency, criminal behavior, and incarceration. The story of the lead exposure in Flint is far from over.

And, unfortunately, it’s not just Flint, Michigan. As reported by Reuters in Scientific American magazine, many other areas of the United States have problems with lead in the drinking water.

The headline reads, “Thousands of U.S. Areas Afflicted with Lead Poisoning beyond Flint’s.”

The media can shine in the area of health journalism when it brings health-related issues to light—capturing and focusing public attention on important issues to improve public health.

As we saw how government officials focused on deflecting attention in the media, with statements like “People can just relax,” the news shouldn’t contribute to panic, but there are times when media-inspired worry can be fuel for change.

Common Questions About the Flint Water Crisis

Q: Who caused the Flint water crisis?

The culprit behind Flint’s water crisis cannot be precisely singled out as it was the government of Flint’s decision to cut costs by switching water supplies to the toxic Flint River. However, the Governor should be held liable along with his team and the team who carried out the plans.

Q: How did the Flint water crisis happen?

When Mayor Dane Walling and his staff decided to switch Flint’s water supply to the untreated water of Flint River, it corroded pipes, introducing toxic lead into the tap water. 

Q: Was the Flint water crisis fixed?

The Flint water crisis was and was not fixed. They switched back to using the Detroit River for their supply, and the water was better. However, the damage to the pipes continues. Until every pipe has been replaced, there will continue to be problems. It was thought in 2017 that the crisis was over and the government encouraged residents to drink from government filters, but residents are still wary. Some of the water tests below the legal limit of 15 parts per billion, but it is only a matter of time before another pipe is found with lead.

Q: How much is it going to cost to replace the pipes in Flint?

The city of Flint estimates a full recovery, including every pipe being replaced, will cost more than 55 million dollars.

This article was updated on June 25, 2020

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