For the past eighteen months, the people of Flint, Michigan have been drinking treated water from the Flint River. Now, because the children of Flint are showing elevated lead levels in their blood, the new mayor has declared a state of emergency, according to Karen Graham reporting for Digital Journal.
The chain of events leading to Mayor Karen Weaver’s announcement began back in April 2014 when the city began drinking the Flint River water. Flint had been buying water from Detroit for years, but when the contract expired, the city upgraded their treatment plant on the river by installing a 36″ diameter pipe to take care of the inflow from the river.
Quickly, residents complained about the urine-colored water. They said the water smelled bad and tasted terrible. Then health problems like hair loss began to be noticed. But city and state officials denied there was a problem and said the water was safe.
On January 2, 2015, a letter was sent to residents from the Department of Environmental Quality saying a notice of violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act had been issued for very high contaminant levels of trihalomethanes, or TTHM, which are a combination of four chemicals that form as a byproduct of disinfecting water.
It seems that over the summer of 2014, operators of the city water plant used a larger amount of chlorine to disinfect the water, which in turn caused disinfectant byproducts to form.
In September of 2015, a study led by Dr. Mona Janna-Attisha, a researcher and director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, compared blood tests taken in April of 2014 with blood tests taken this year. The results showed that lead levels in babies and children in the city had doubled. She also discovered that in high-risk areas, lead-levels were triple the safe level.
At the end of September, Governor Rick Snyder finally announced that Flint had a severe water system problem — but, according to the Detroit Free Press, the governor did not declare that this was an emergency.
Flint has reconnected to the Detroit water system, but Flint residents are shaken and afraid. The World Health Organization reports that the “neurological and behavioral effects of lead are considered to be irreversible.” WHO adds that children with high levels of lead can suffer disruptive behavioral patterns, mental retardation, and coma or death.
Flint residents filed a class-action suit in November in which they claim:
“The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant.”
Lee Anne Walters, a resident of Flint, has a son who has been diagnosed with lead poisoning. One sample taken of her water had a lead level of more than 13,000 parts per billion. Water with lead levels of 5,000 parts per billion is considered hazardous waste by the EPA.
“How does this happen in the United States?” she asks. “I mean, you hear about it in third world countries, but how does this happen, specifically in a state that is surrounded by the Great Lakes?”
Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio said that in 2013, Flint was broke and was looking for ways to save money, and Flint could save millions of dollars with a new system. But the system would not be complete until the summer of 2016 at the earliest. Detroit increased Flint’s water rates when they saw the city was going to leave their system, so Flint’s emergency manager said water from the Flint River would be cheap.
The Flint River water was found to have E. coli in it and was corrosive and was drawing lead from aging underground pipes. Some people said the water burned their eyes when they took a shower. One woman lost all her eyelashes. The water corroded engine parts at the Flint General Motors engine plants.
The people of Flint were told to stop drinking tap water, to buy a certified lead filter, or to purchase bottled water if they could afford to do so.
Now, says Erik Ortiz of MSNBC, in order to get financial aid for this emergency, Ron Leix, a spokesperson for the state Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division, said the county commissioners would need to support Flint’s disaster declaration. But getting everyone on the same page, calling the mandatory meetings, and completing the paperwork involved can be a lengthy process.
Gillian Mohney and Emily Shapiro of ABC News reported that Dr. Donna Seger, a professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University, explained that lead stays in the body until it is removed with the aid of medication or it is excreted. But lead can also “hide” in bones or tissues and over long periods of exposure it can stay inside the body even though treatment has been completed.
“The more vulnerable the nervous system, the greater potential lead has to cause problems,” Seger said, explaining that the metal can act as a neurotoxin in children. “The main concern is the cognitive issue that it causes.”