Residents of Flint, Michigan, who have experienced a drinking water crisis since the city switched its water source in an effort to save money, want two things: safe drinking water and official accountability for the crisis.
Shortly after the 2014 switch from Lake Huron water to Flint River water, residents began complaining that their tap water looked dirty, tasted bad, and caused rashes, the New York Times reports. But corrective action did not come until fall 2015, when tests revealed that many Flint children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. State and local officials are now scrambling to remedy the situation.
The switch to a less costly source of drinking water was intended to alleviate some of the financial pressures on a struggling city. Manufacturing jobs, once a mainstay of the city, have moved overseas and Flint’s population has dropped to fewer than 100,000. More than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level, according to the Times. The problems are compounded by the city’s aging and crumbling infrastructure. The highly corrosive Flint River water was not being treated with an anti-corrosive agent, as required by federal law, and the water was eroding the city’s iron water mains, turning water brown, and leaching lead into the water, CNN reports.
Worried residents began buying bottled water for drinking and cooking, while city and state leaders largely dismissed their complaints with assurances that the water was being tested regularly. But when the blood lead level data emerged, officials advised residents not to drink unfiltered tap water and that recommendation remains in effect, the Times reports.
As of December 2015, the state had identified 43 people with elevated lead levels in their blood. Lead is toxic, and can cause developmental problems in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe blood lead level in children. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body and even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect a child’s IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. Effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected. Lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, and therefore it frequently goes unrecognized.
In October, Gov. Rick Snyder helped arrange a switch back to Lake Huron water. The governor has apologized to Flint residents and has declared a state of emergency for the city. The state is distributing free water filters and testing kits to residents but this has not allayed the concerns and anger. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said the change did not undo corrosion damage from the river water that caused pipes to leach lead.
Residents have called for the state to fund replacement of the city’s old water pipes—Mayor Weaver says this could cost up to $1.5 billion—and they want a fund to cover the developmental impact of the lead on children, the Times reports.
A task force appointed by Gov. Snyder found that the State Department of Environmental Quality’s response to health concerns “was often one of aggressive dismissal, belittlement and attempts to discredit these efforts and the individuals involved,” the Times reports. The director of the Department of Environmental Quality resigned.