The toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has created headlines around the world. How is it that in a first-world country like the United States, an entire town's water supply could become contaminated with lead?
And once that contamination was known, why – given the known developmental consequences of lead exposure on young brains – was the official response so lax?
Here to help us understand just exactly what went wrong is Mary Gade, former Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 5, which covers six Midwestern states, including Michigan.
What happened in Flint?
In the 1960s, Flint, Michigan, was a booming industrial city. With a population of 200,000, Flint was home to auto companies like General Motors, Buick and Chevrolet.
But as the 20th century progressed, Flint steadily declined. Car manufacturing jobs headed overseas and more affluent families fled to the suburbs.
Today, Flint has less than half the amount of residents as it did in the 1960s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 41 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Flint’s population is 57 percent black, 37 percent white and 4 percent Latino.
In 2013, the Flint City Council voted to change the city’s water provider from Detroit to the Karegnondi Water Authority. That means Flint would eventually get its water from Lake Huron, but it would be 3 years before that pipeline would be ready. Detroit would stop selling Flint water in April 2014. So in April of 2014, the city began using water from the Flint River.
Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the water. They reported a foul smell, with some likening the odor to a fish market or gasoline. The color of the water was also wrong; sometimes it was yellow, brown or green.
Over the next 18 months, investigations from the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies revealed that the water contained a chemical byproduct of disinfectants called trihalomethanes (TTHM). The EPA warns that prolonged intake of TTHM increases the risk of cancer.
Studies also found that the amount of lead in the bloodstream of children had almost doubled since the city switched its water to the Flint River. It was revealed over time that water from the river was corrosive, allowing lead to seep into the water – even leading the local General Motors plant to change its water source. Some reports would later find a spike in Legionnaires’ disease since the switch, including 10 deaths.
Residents complained of burning skin, rashes, tremors, hair loss, anemia and seizures, but state officials were slow to act. It wasn’t until October 2015 – almost a year and a half later – that the city’s water supply was switched back to Detroit and the governor publically acknowledged the crisis. Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in early January and the National Guard began distributing water bottles.
The governor, state officials and EPA administrators have since faced serious criticism and public outrage over their handling of the water crisis. Gov. Snyder apologized in his State of the State address and signed a relief bill on Jan. 29 to provide $28 million in aid to solve the city’s water woes. The governor also released a 274-page document with hundreds of emails that revealed the state’s initial responses to the crisis.
President Barack Obama also signed an order providing federal aid for Flint. The U.S. Department of Justice has since launched an investigation into Michigan’s management of the crisis.
What went wrong?
After more than a year and a half after residents of Flint began raising concerns about their water, many are asking how a crisis like this could occur in the U.S. and be dismissed for so long.
Mary Gade is a former EPA Region 5 administrator and is now the president of the Gade Environmental Group. Gade was forced out of the EPA back in 2008 after taking legal action against Dow Chemical in Michigan in order to get the company to remove toxic waste from the Saginaw-area rivers.
Gade says the first mistake in the Flint case was the decision to switch the water source without putting adequate safeguards in place. But while many have criticized Gov. Snyder and Michigan state officials, Gade said the EPA should also bear some of the blame.
“The EPA has an obligation to step in, particularly when you have this kind of imminent and substantial endangerment to the public, which became painfully obvious as the months went by,” Gade said.
Critics of Gov. Snyder and other Michigan officials have also said that a water crisis like this would not have happened in a more affluent community, since Flint is struggling economically and has a large minority population.
“I really can’t tell you what [the thinking was] at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality or even the regional office of the EPA,” Gade said. “The U.S. EPA has had a strong environmental justice program in place for years focused on minority communities that often are disproportionately impacted by pollution … It’s very mystifying what happened.
"I will say that people who know how to play the political system and who are part of the political system obviously have a stronger voice in terms of reaching the decision makers and governors," she added.
In addition to investigations from an EPA Inspector General and Gov. Snyder’s office, the FBI is now investigating what happened in Flint.
“I do think it is entirely possible that laws were broken if people were knowingly telling people that it was safe to drink [the] water and they knew it was not,” Gade said.
Why is lead such a big issue in this water crisis?
While there have been many health repercussions from the toxic water in Flint, none has been more prevalent than lead poisoning. According to the Mayo Clinic, even small amounts of lead can be harmful.
It usually takes prolonged exposure to lead for someone to suffer from lead poisoning. Children under age 6 are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, as it can negatively affect mental and physical development. Lead poisoning in small children can cause learning difficulties, weight loss, abdominal pain, hearing loss and more.
“Any amount of lead can be harmful in terms of your health, and lead actually impacts many organs in the body but most particularly the nervous system,” Gade said.
In Flint, the researchers from Hurley Medical Center that found an increased instance of lead in young children became major whistleblowers for the crisis.
“Once you’ve got this in your system the damages and the effects can be seen potentially years later,” Gade said. “The impacts of this on those who have been exposed will be felt for potentially decades to come.”
Timeline of events in the Flint water crisis