The city of Flint expected to save $5 million over two years when it changed the source of its drinking water two years ago. But that money-saving measure could eventually end up costing almost 80 times that in future economic losses.
In addition to poisoning the city of 100,000 people and exposing an estimated 8,000 children to toxic levels of lead caused by the new water source, the total lifetime economic losses of the lead poisoning in Flint will reach $395 million, or $50,000 per child. That's according to research from health policy professor Peter Muennig at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
Mistakes in the treatment process sent corrosive water through the city's metal pipes starting in April 2014, leaching lead that then flowed into residents' homes and out of their taps. Over the course of 18 months, residents were exposed to the toxin, which affects brain development in children and may lead to irreversible problems like low IQ or behavioral issues.
Muennig said an important highlight of his study is the fact that Flint's water switch was billed as a cost cutting measure while the city was under state financial management.
The figure does not take into account the $58 million spent by the state on response efforts for healthcare and water, or the $300 billion in estimated costs to rebuild the city's water infrastructure. Instead, Muennig's estimates are based on future social expenses, including economic productivity losses, welfare use, and criminal justice costs.
"In a lot of the media coverage [about the water crisis] people were just talking about lead, lead, lead, childhood lead poisoning, but they don't really talk about what that means," he said. His estimates are conservative, Muennig added. His aim in publishing them is not "just putting economic numbers to it, but opening up the conversation a little bit."
When a child is exposed to lead, particularly under the age of six, the chemical enters the brain and damages the nervous system. This exposure affects neurological development areas specifically related to intelligence, memory, and behavior. When it comes to behavioral changes, the toxin has been linked to antisocial, hyperactive, and aggressive or violent personalities.
These problems can have a huge societal impact in the long term. Due to the impact on IQ, children with lead poisoning may be less likely to have good jobs or health insurance, or to complete high school. Behavioral effects like violent tendencies and aggression could trigger criminal activity or drug abuse. Over a lifetime these costs add up.
"The crazy thing is these are not things that happen now. A 4-year-old is not going to shoot up a liquor store. They unfold over time and get worse over time," Muennig said.
Throughout the US, lead exposure costs in 2015 amounted to $4.5 billion, according to the Columbia study. The total number of cases in Flint, which Muennig measured at 8,000 children between April 2014 and April 2015, made up about 5 percent of the total in the US during the same period.
In Flint, where more than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many children were already at a disadvantage long before the water crisis hit. Over the last decade, several schools have closed.
Children in wealthier areas or better school districts, Muennig said, would inherently receive more support had they been exposed to lead. The lifetime impact for those children would be drastically reduced.
Tammy Loren, a Flint resident and mother of four boys, had concerns over the quality of education in Flint before the lead issues. But in the last two years since the water switch, she said, her sons began to exhibit concerning behavioral changes. According to Loren, their grades have worsened, they have a hard time following directions, and sitting down to do homework is a challenge. So is behaving like other children.
"I can't even remember the last time they were able to carry out a full day of being able to play," she said.
With a new school year starting later this month, Loren expressed concerns that the schools were no better equipped for students with behavioral issues and learning disabilities than they were before the Flint water crisis got national attention. And she worries about what the true long term effects will be on her sons.
"It makes you feel helpless because we don't know what's going to happen. As a parent seeing this happen to your own child, knowing there's nothing you can do, it breaks your heart," she said explaining that she tries to explain to her sons what they are up against. "They have to live with this the rest of their life."
Local groups are pushing to change that outcome. Flint's Hurley Children's Hospital and Michigan State University have formed a pediatric public health initiative to help address the lead exposure problem. Generally local mitigation efforts have been focused on supporting areas like early childhood, access to healthy foods, and behavioral health services.
Muennig described the costs he calculated as sunk costs, which would happen even with the mitigation measures in place. But other places in the US, he said, are relatively worse off than even Flint in terms of lifetime costs from lead poisoning.
Flint made national headlines. The problem of lead poisoning elsewhere, for example from lead paint, does not.
"I think that the reason that this got so much attention, relative to the chronic problem of children everywhere getting poisoning by lead, is that it was a result of stupid government decisions," he said. "It's a story made for the media."
And the result is that people in Flint will benefit from the attention.
"The net amount of damage is [going to be] way, way less," he said, "than what happens day to day to kids chewing on lead paint."