National Beat Reporter
A living nightmare has taken hold of Flint, Mich., with a perilous and “unforeseen,” antagonist: local drinking water.
Though a state of emergency has been in place for about a month, contamination of Flint’s public water system — and the city’s 100,000 residents — dates back to April 2014, when the city shifted its drinking water source from Detroit’s Lake Huron supply to the Flint River in a temporary effort to cut costs during construction of its own Huron pipeline. But the transfer of corrosive water through aging pipes had a swift and poisonous effect on the population; researchers estimate that by fall 2015 the rate of “above-average” blood lead levels in children under age six had doubled.
What does that mean for residents — including 8,000 to 9,000 young kids — exposed to the toxic water? As early as mid-2015, many exhibited symptoms like hair loss, blistering rash, tooth and bone deterioration and extraordinarily weakened immune systems. That’s not to mention the long-term effects; over time, lead is known to cause learning disabilities, violent behavior, attention problems and developmental damage to the brain and nervous system in children within the primary scope of study.
Ten deaths from Legionnaires’ disease, an aggravated form of pneumonia, have already been reported in the region between June 2014 and Nov. 2015 in a trend that coincides neatly with Flint’s transition from Detroit water. A whopping 77 additional cases surfaced throughout Genesee County during that time period, up from the six to 13 cases seen in previous years.
The state government knew months before the switch back to Detroit’s water system that the Flint River water was potentially toxic. As early as Feb. 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency informed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that the river water would need to be treated with an anti-corrosive agent before it was safe to drink or bathe in.
The DEQ has since admitted it consciously failed to apply the agent, which would have cost about $100 per day, though experts have indicated the measure could have prevented up to 90 percent of Flint’s contamination issues. Furthermore, emails made public by Michigan governor Rick Snyder suggest several state agencies downplayed the crisis in Flint for as long as a year, discrediting various studies, understating the impact of certain bacteria and blaming residents for unduly politicizing the matter.
The city of Flint reported a contamination to the state in Jan. 2015, but indicated the threat had been previously resolved. Regardless, state officials installed purified water coolers on each floor of the administration’s office building in Flint to ensure its employees would not have to drink from the tap.
If lead in water samples is measured at 15 parts per billion or more, the EPA traditionally advises homeowners and local government bodies to take measures to reduce that level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is important to note that while 15 ppb is the threshold, researchers maintain that no level of lead is safe to consume.
These standards considered, measurements in Flint rendered disbelief among Virginia Tech researchers who undertook a study of the city’s water last summer. Samples from 271 homes revealed a 90th-percentile reading of 27 ppb, with the highest sample registering 158 ppb.
Later that year, the research team visited resident LeeAnne Walters, a mother of four, to verify a a city reading of 397 ppb that — while already distressingly high — they suspected had been misread by officials. Sure enough, samples collected at various flow rates ranged from 200 ppb to 13,000 ppb in concentration, the latter figure exceeding the EPA standard for “toxic waste” by 8,000 ppb.
Several groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have speculated that the negligence in Flint — whose population is over half black — is the product of environmental racism on the part of officials who ignored the gravity of the situation. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission announced last week that it will hold three public hearings to investigate those claims of discrimination.
The crisis has raised alarm across the nation, prompting many to question the quality of their own local water. As of April 2015, the Goleta Water District has reported no detection of lead at any of its 34 sample sites. However, a footnote states, “Goleta Water District is responsible for providing high quality drinking water, but cannot control the variety of materials used in plumbing components.”
The agency recommends locals flush household taps anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes when their water supply has been “sitting” for multiple hours. Residents concerned about lead or other contaminants should call District Operations Manager Tom Bunosky at (805) 879-4630 or the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791.