The Flint Water Problem, Part I: How It Happened

Posted on: December 12, 2016
By: Alan O'Neill
Posted in: Count On Us To Care, Plumbing

The water problems began when the city of Flint, Michigan found itself in a budget crisis. In 2014, the state of Michigan decided to temporarily change the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. The Flint River has a reputation for not being very clean. After the switch for the water supply, the city’s residents complained their water looked cloudy, had a distinct smell, and tasted unpleasant.

Researchers at Virginia Tech discovered that the water was highly corrosive. According to some sources, so corrosive that General Motors stopped using it in their plant to avoid corroding parts during production and assembly. Unfortunately, many of the pipes in the Flint water system are made of lead. Lead pipes can be found in old water distribution systems and has been used for solder for copper piping, too. Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic and can damage the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive organs. It also interferes with the development of the nervous system, which is particularly damaging to children. Lead can cause permanent learning and behavior disorders. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death. Some have also linked lead to Legionnaire’s disease. Because the water source was corrosive, the water interacted with the lead in the pipes, which made the water unsafe to consume. So unsafe that some residents didn’t even use it to wash their hands. The city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply a few months later, but it was too late. Damage had already been done to the lead pipes. Of course, the City, State and Federal agencies all declared that this was a true state of emergency. Presidential candidates discussed it in their campaign speeches. But, people still struggled.

State officials initially told residents everything was OK. Then the real scope of the problem came when local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha announced that records showed lead levels in toddlers had doubled, and in some cases tripled, since the switch from Lake Huron. The situation is even more damaging after financial hardship of past years, now that they may have additional medical bills for their families.

Lead poisoning is dangerous for anyone. The related symptoms show lead exposure can affect a developing child’s IQ, resulting in learning disabilities. These issues will tax the city’s abilities to continue to correct and deal with these issues. Experts say that water treatment would have prevented 90% of the problems with Flint’s water.

But, water system issues are occurring more frequently across America. Other states and cities are having issues, too. In addition to long term droughts in the Western U.S., getting clean water in places like St. Joseph, Louisiana is also a problem. The Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted in 1986, required the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for the concentration of lead in public pipes, with a push for “lead-free.” This urged water management systems to replace old water pipes with PVC, as an eco-friendly alternative. But, that’s expensive. Many poorer communities instead had to turn to anti-corrosive agents as a cheaper and faster solution.

There are things you can do to protect your home. Many public suppliers put yearly reports online. Or, you can find it yourself by typing your ZIP code into the EPA’s web site at Look for lead levels below the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion. If you discover a lead reading at or above that level on the report, take action. You can do use bottled water, but be sure to check out the quality of the water before you buy. Some bottled waters are nothing more than tap water or have not been tested and it can get expensive. You can install a whole house water filter. Since, lead is odorless and has no taste, the only way you will know if you have lead in your home’s tap water is to have it tested.

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