THE FLINT WATER CRISIS

H. Subramaniam
November 3, 2016
The Flint Water Crisis

It is two years since the water crisis erupted in the City of Flint in Michigan, United States of America. The case has become a landmark in public water supply field and holds a lesson for administrators across the world.

After the City of Flint changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water (which was sourced from Lake Huron as well as the Detroit River) to the Flint River (to which officials had failed to apply corrosion inhibitors), its drinking water had a series of problems in 2014 that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger. The Flint River water that was treated improperly caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin. In Flint, between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems.

Due to the change in water source, the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels may have risen from about 2.5% in 2013 to as much as 5% in 2015. The water change is also a possible cause of an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the county that has killed 10 people and affected another 77.

Several lawsuits have been filed against government officials on the issue, and several investigations have been opened. In January 2016, the city was declared to be in a state of emergency by the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, before President Barack Obama declared it as a federal state of emergency, authorizing additional help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security less than two weeks later.

Governor Snyder issued an apology to citizens and promised to fix the problem, and then sent USD 28 million to Flint for supplies, medical care and infrastructure upgrades, and later budgeted an additional USD 30 million to Flint that will give water bill credits of 65% for residents and 20% for businesses. Another USD 165 million for lead pipe replacements and water bill reimbursements was approved by Governor Snyder in June 2016.

Childhood lead exposure causes a reduction in intellectual functioning and IQ, academic performance, and problem-solving skills, and an increased risk of attention deficit disorder, aggression, and hyperactivity. According to studies, children with elevated levels of lead in the blood are more likely as adults to commit crimes, be imprisoned, be unemployed or underemployed, or be dependent on government services. A 2014 study by researchers at Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, completed before the Flint water crisis came to light, estimated the annual cost of childhood lead exposure in Michigan at USD 330 million.

As the developmental effects of lead exposure appears over a series of years, the total long-term cost of the Flint water crisis "will not be apparent in the short term." However, the cost is expected to be high. Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an expert in the effects of environmental pollution on brain development, said that "when calculated from the loss of lifetime income, the societal costs from lead exposure (across the United States) may reach billion dollar amounts.

The water disaster called attention to the problem of aging and seriously neglected water infrastructure worldwide. The crisis highlighted a lack of transparency in Michigan government, as with many other governments across the world. A number of commentators framed the crisis in terms of human rights, writing that authorities' handling of the issue denied residents their right to clean water. Some have framed it as the end result of austerity measures that were given priority over human life. Civil rights advocates characterized the crisis as a result of environmental racism, a term primarily referring to the disproportionate exposure of ethnic minorities to pollution as a result of "poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.

The Flint water crisis has many lessons for water and public health administrators across the world. It shows the importance of long-term planning and combining it with strong engineering and maintenance practices. Water touches us all deeply. The mishaps caused by poor water management can harm our successive generations adversely for a very long time.

H Subramaniam H. Subramaniam is Editor, EverythingAboutWater magazine. He can be reached at subrah@eawater.com.

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