When residents of Flint, Michigan first opened their taps in April 2014, they knew something was amiss. Murky, foul-smelling water, which they later found to cause rashes and hair loss, gushed out. Concerned about the visibly filthy water and the consequences of using it, residents complained to city officials, who repeatedly promised that the water met federal water standards. But the water remained dirty, the residents skeptical, and the administration increasingly deaf towards the fears of its constituents.
Things finally came to a head in October 2015 when two separately conducted lead-contamination studies forced Flint officials to admit to a cover-up. The first study conducted by a researcher at the University of Michigan found that lead levels were 25 parts per billion (ppb) in households, higher than the 15 ppb limit set by federal standards. The second study run by a local family physician found lead blood levels to have doubled in children from 2.4% to 4.9% during the year Flint switched to its own water treatment facilities. Lead toxicity affects brain development and causes chronic anemia. Children are especially vulnerable because of the long-term consequences to their growth.
In addition to high lead levels, Flint officials had neglected to monitor chemical concentrations in their water, resulting in a surge in waterborne pathogens. In 2014 alone, 90 cases and 12 deaths were reported due to Legionnaire’s disease, a severe kind of pneumonia. Flint’s water later tested positive for Legionella bacteria.
When confronted with the researchers’ findings, Flint Governor Rick Snyder formally acknowledged what his citizens had feared all along: From April 2014 to October 2015, they had been drinking, cooking, and washing with lead and otherwise contaminated water.
National outrage ensued, with support for the Flint residents pouring in. Many wondered how a wealthy, first-world country like the US could intentionally leave its citizens without access to clean drinking water for so long. The answer to that lies in persistent underfunding for public resources and careless officials.
Before the 2014 crisis, Flint had been buying treated drinking water from the city of Detroit. In 2013, Flint officials decided to switch to a cheaper water treatment company, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which was building its own pipeline. Transferring between companies was estimated to save Flint $200 million over 25 years, but building a connection from Flint to the KWA would take time. In the meantime, Flint officials decided to draw and treat water from its local river for residents in what was promised to be a temporary switch.
But Flint’s water treatment facilities had been out of use for decades. Officials made efforts to renovate them but the city was already strapped for finances. In what would become a gross act of negligence, city officials decided to sacrifice the costlier purification treatments to save money. Following national outrage over lead contamination, the city switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015 but by then it was too late. Flint’s problem was no longer simply unpurified drinking water, its problem now stemmed from its weak water infrastructure.
Public water system purification is a multi-pronged approach: water is filtered, treated with chemicals to kill bacteria, and flushed with anti-corrosives to prevent metals like lead from leaching out of pipes into drinking water. Detroit used anti-corrosives; Flint, in an effort to save $200 a day, did not. This irrevocably damaged the metal pipes that delivered water to households. Regardless of where Flint gets its water from now, residents will still receive a contaminated version via worn down pipes.
Now, two years after the crisis garnered global attention, Flint is still in limbo about where it will receive its water from. Plans to build a pipeline from Flint to the KWA were shelved in April 2017 when Flint officials decided to continue using Detroit’s water system. The water is being regularly tested and has been pronounced as safe as similar states, yet officials caution against using the water for drinking and cooking without a filter. Until then, residents are forced to rely on government-distributed bottled water, with recent reports claiming non-Flint residents are stealing bottled water for themselves.
While it may seem that city officials got off scot-free, reparations have been sought. Several lawsuits have been filed against the state of Michigan and the city of Flint seeking monetary compensation. Recently, a federal judge approved a $97 million settlement wherein Michigan has agreed to replace 18 000 household water lines by 2020. Last month, Michigan’s Attorney General’s Office charged several state officials with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the Legionnaires’ outbreak that caused 12 deaths.
But if the Flint water crisis seems like something that only happens far away, think again. In 2016, international watchdog Human Rights Watch documented that Aboriginal communities in Canada have been suffering from disastrous water quality for decades- since 1977, despite the country’s abundance of freshwater. Their investigation found that water supplies on many First Nation reserves are hard to access, contaminated, or at risk due to faulty treatment systems. Similar to Flint, obstructed access to safe water remains a federally acknowledged but still unaddressed issue on Canadian First Nation reserves.
Water is life–but to these communities, it is also a slow death sentence.
By Hagr Saad and Aishah Cader
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.