The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, over two years old now, has been widely regarded as one of the worst public health disasters in American history.
The Virginia Tech researchers, who first confirmed Flint residents' fears that their water was tainted over a year agoo, published their latest round of tests this week announcing another remarkable drop in lead levels. It's an amazing feat considering where things stood almost a year ago.
But while significant progress has been made in cleaning up the tap, many lead pipes still need replacing, many Flint residents still must use bottled water, and Flint residents are still not being included in discussions of the solutions going forward.
First, some background. Flint used to get its tap water from the city of Detroit, who sourced theirs from Lake Huron. Then in a cost-cutting move in April 2014, officials in Flint opted out of Detroit's water supply and instead began drawing water from the Flint River. The river water was highly corrosive, and as it pumped through the city's many old lead pipes, it slowly ate away at the metal. As a result, the corroded pipes leached high amounts of lead into the water, and flowed into people's faucets.
The number of children in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood doubled, even tripled, in some parts of the city. Lead poisoning in children can lead to cognitive impairment, behavioral disorders, lower IQ, and decreased hearing ability.
After a year of pleas about the acrid, discolored water that was being pumped into their homes, Flint's residents, with the help of some Virginia Tech researchers, convinced the state government that there was a problem. In October, 2015 the city switched it's water back to the Detroit supply. The hope was that with time, the leaching pipes would eventually subside after being flushed with the less corrosive water. Lead filters and bottled water were distributed en masse by National Guard soldiers.
Despite the cleaner water source and the lead filters, the corroded service pipes running into people's houses can still leach lead, so the city is currently going through the arduous process of removing and replacing all of the lead-pipe service lines attached to Flint residents' homes. Over 200 have been replaced so far—out of thousands. It's an effort likely to takes months, or years, to complete and comes with a $234 million price tag.
After all of this clean up work, Flint's drinking water and the livelihoods of its citizens stand in perpetual limbo.
It's an effort likely to takes months, or years, to complete and comes with a $234 million price tag.
As the treated water from Detroit flows through the city's water systems, the levels of lead continue to fall. In spite of this progress, however, residents must still rely on lead filters and bottled water—perhaps for as long as there are still lead pipes in the ground. In fact, amid concerns that there are still residents without lead filters, a district court judge in Michigan recently ruled that the city was obligated to provide every household with bottled water. There are about 34,000 households in Flint.
"There are some outcomes that are less than optimal, packaged with some outcomes that have been incredibly good. The story is more complicated than I think is often times portrayed," medical anthropologist Yanna Lambrinidou told Motherboard.
Lambrinidou has studied lead contamination in drinking water for years and was on the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee put together by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to develop long term solutions to the problem. She also lived through one of America's worst drinking water crises in the early 2000's when lead contamination was discovered in the nation's Capital.
Lambrinidou pointed out that noticeably absent from any deliberations or efforts to find long-term solutions to the problem are the people of Flint—who have suffered through it all. "As somebody who has studied this policy quite extensively and as somebody who has lived through a similar crisis, I can tell you that I am deeply concerned about the fact that to this day Flint residents do not have the type of participation that I would expect, given the knowledge and experience they have amassed and continue to gather."
Isaiah Glover, a resident of Flint and father of two daughters, told podcast Tiny Spark in an interview that early on in the crisis he made a decision to trust the government when they were telling residents that the water was safe. "And I'm going to have to deal with that for a long time," he said. "As a parent you never rid yourself of that guilt."
"One of the tragedies of this crisis," Glover lamented, "is the erosion of trust in our community—trust in government, trust in systems. And that's something that's going to take a long time to heal." Unless residents are part of the discussions on long term solutions, it might never.
After being called upon for almost a year now to deliver aid to Flint, Congress appeared to have come to some kind of a compromise earlier this week that would authorize giving the beleaguered city $170 million. But last minute squabbling over details of the bill unrelated to the aid money could result in disappointment for Flint residents yet again.
The aid is packaged in a much larger, almost unwieldy, bill that also addresses drought relief in California and revamping waterways infrastructure around the U.S. Eleventh hour changes in wording, however, has upset some of the bill's original backers. There still has yet to be a vote on the matter, and Congress could be closing up shop for the year's end as early as this weekend.
Until, then, the families in Flint will continue to exist in this disturbing limbo.
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