Insights into a public health emergency

Flint Water Study team member describes 'perfect storm' for lead contamination in Flint

In Flint, Michigan, the lead water contamination crisis continues to unfold. As we go to press with this issue of WaterWorld, three individuals have been criminally charged for their involvement in the incident: two state Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials and one Flint water employee. By all indications from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, these are just the beginning.

A few weeks ago, I had the rare opportunity to attend a presentation given by a member of the Flint Water Study Team, the Virginia Tech group that played a key role in bringing Flint’s lead contamination issue to light. Recounting the story from the team’s perspective, Doctoral candidate Pan Ji captivated attendees of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association’s annual Washington Forum in Washington, D.C.

To better understand why the Flint water crisis happened, she suggested, it’s important to understand the history of the city of Flint. At the height of the auto industry in the 1950s and 1960s, Flint was booming, with a population of 200,000 and one of the highest incomes per capita in the world.

Flash forward thirty years or so, and the decline of the auto industry means the decline of Flint: today Flint’s population is half what it was and forty-two percent are living below the poverty line.

“And as a result of the financial decline, essentially no new houses were built in Flint since the 1980s,” said Ji. “This has great implication on the lead in water…if you have a house that was built before 1986 [when lead solder was officially banned] and you haven’t remodeled it, then the house likely has lead solder within the plumbing system.”

In addition, it’s estimated that 52 percent of the homes in Flint have a lead service line.

After switching its water source from Detroit’s treated water to the Flint River in April 2014, things began to take a turn for the worse.

“Unfortunately when officials were toasting the water switch,” Ji continued, “federal law was violated because MDEQ did not request Flint to implement corrosion control. This, in combination with the corrosive [Flint River] water, would eventually create a perfect storm for lead release in the system.”

It wasn’t long before fecal coliforms were detected in the water, followed by high concentrations of disinfection byproducts (total trihalomethanes). By summer 2014, residents were complaining about the color, smell, and taste of the water. There were reports of hair loss, headaches, and rashes.

“General Motors noticed the Flint River water was corroding their engine parts,” she said, “and it was corroding so bad that they finally cut a deal and switched from the Flint River water.”

However, local and state officials - relying on information from MDEQ - insisted the water in Flint was safe to drink.

We now know that it was not, in large part thanks to one resident, LeeAnne Walters. She refused to accept MDEQ’s placations and knocked on every door until she was finally advised to contact Dr. Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech. “And thus the Flint Water Study Team was born,” said Ji.

Dr. Edwards and his team of twenty-five graduate and undergraduate students, post-docs, and professors, made it their mission to provide Flint residents with information about their water quality. And along the way, they brought to light an unprecedented public health tragedy that we are only beginning to fully comprehend.

Angela Godwin

Chief Editor, WaterWorld

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