A Human-Made Water Crisis
The infamous Flint Water crisis has been in and out of news outlets as early as 2014. This human-made water crisis in Flint, Michigan involves the contamination of the municipal's water supply system. The contaminated water contains high levels of lead, which ultimately results in a major public health threat. This water problem has escalated so quickly that it led to a call for state emergency, court appearances, lawsuits, charges, etc. To say the least, the city of Flint was in for a serious water dilemma.
To some, Flint's case was just another story about environmental injustice, but to the residents, it was a matter of life and death. Drinking water with lead contamination has affected their health, way of living, and overall life quality. Hence, the state and local governments should've come together and solved this lead crisis as soon as possible. Instead, the government officials deliberately ignored, overlooked, and belittled the problem; even after receiving massive complaints and reports about the water's foul smell, off-taste, and evident discoloration. Moreover, this water with inadequate treatment and proper testing was continued to be piped into Flint homes for a couple of months. The government has only looked properly into the problem when major symptoms caused by lead exposure started showing; such as skin rashes, itchy skin, hair loss, and even the so-called Legionnaire disease.
To make matters worse, the public water supply in Flint has led to complicated health threats among the youth. There were several cases of elevated blood lead levels in Flint's children, endangering the health of the young population. Needless to say, if the city's water system remains mismanaged and untreated, a lot of other health problems will emerge in the next years.
Let's delve deeper into Flint's water system and its background, how it ended up getting contaminated with high amounts of lead, the lead levels in Flint's water and how it affects human health in the long run. We will also go into detail about the lawsuits filed by the residents against the administration, as well as the estimated cost to fix the Flint water crisis.
The Root Cause of the Flint Water Crisis
Beginning in the year 2014, the water emergency in Flint, Michigan started when the authorities changed the city's drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River, in an attempt to save more money. Since then, Flint's water system was heavily reported and suspected of water contamination. This is already given because the Flint River, the source that pipes water into the whole city, acted as an unofficial water disposal site for more than a century. Not only that, but it is also used as the site for a variety of treated and untreated industrial waste; from car factories to meatpacking plants, and even to lumber and paper mills. This new water source has also been exposed to raw sewage from various waste treatment plants in the city and toxins from agricultural runoff. So, it is not so surprising how the whole water crisis has begun in the first place.
Early on, along the shores of the Flint river, was like a new civilization filled with industries and several operations. In there began General Motors, as well as the boom of the automobile industry. To add, it has been inhabited by, more or less, hundreds of thousands of people. However, come 1980, the "boom" was halted by long periods of economic problems, such as price hikes in oil and the wreckage of auto plants, followed shortly by unemployment. As a result, many people relocated and evacuated the said area, while the majority of people who were behind left were practically below the poverty line. As such, there were a lot of abandoned houses in a ratio of one abandoned home out of six in the city of Flint.
With over a $25 million deficit, the city fell under state control. Since then, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder assigned a newly-elected emergency manager to supervise and control the city costs. It was then that it was decided to end the city’s five-decade utilization of Detroit's water system for a cheaper alternative - that is, piping water from the Flint River. Supposedly, it was a temporary alternative while waiting for the construction of Lake Huron. Moreover, the water quality of the Flint River was highly-corrosive, yet the city's officials remained mum about it and didn't even bother adding anti-corrosion chemicals. They didn't let it undergo the necessary treatment nor tried to filter it out. This, on top of the city's old pipes, caused lead contamination.
The High Levels of Lead in Flint's Water
Just a few months after using the Flint River as the main source of water supply, there were a lot of complaints about the water's smell, taste, and texture. A lot of residents protested, yet somehow, the officials were calm enough to deny such accusations. In retrospect, they reiterated that the Flint River water was safe to use.
In the following year, researchers from Virginia Tech, a respected research university, collected water samples from a number of Flint's homes in a resident-organized undertaking. As such, the research results convey that citywide lead levels had indeed increased. Based on specific measures, almost 17% of lead cases detected have exceeded the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). By standard, this is the level where corrective action must be done immediately to prevent further damage. Moreover, it was reported that at least 40% percent of samples measured above 5 ppb of lead. Being that as may, the researchers have concluded that Flint's water quality is in a very critical stage.
As if it couldn't get any worse, there were several findings that link the Flint water crisis with the incidence of elevated lead levels in the blood content of school-aged children. In fact, the said incident has doubled starting in 2014 and nearly tripled in some parts of the city. Based on recent surveys, there were almost ten thousand children who were subjected to lead-contaminated water for almost two years.
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Simply put, the dangers brought upon by Flint's untreated water supply were more than just lead contamination. It was also plagued by an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia. The outbreak was concluded to have started with the switch from Detroit water to the Flint River. In total, there were more than eighty (80) people who contracted the disease, while there was a total death count of twelve (12) between 2014 and 2015. Due to the severity of the case, it was recorded as the third largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the history of the United States.
Furthermore, the city water was also contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria, which was said to be the result of poor water maintenance and insufficient chlorine in the water system which is usually used to disinfect the water. Given the problem, the city tried to address chlorine insufficiency by adding more of it into the water without even addressing the underlying issue in the water. As a result, not only was it an ineffective and futile corrective measure to impose, but it also made the water crisis worse than it was before.
Due to this negligence on their part, there were high levels of a cancer-causing chemical called the total trihalomethanes (TTHM) in the water. As such, this was the result of excessive chlorination of water without the effort of understanding the context first.
The Dangers of Lead Exposure
Lead is a heavy metal that has been popularly used in making cookware, makeup, paint, and even some preservative in wine. Some people even used it for baths and aqueducts. It is very easy to melt, hammer, or press out of its normal shape. Still, lead consumption remains to be very dangerous, especially if consumed heavily and excessively.
Not surprisingly, lead exposure is linked to serious health complications —from sickness and disability to death itself.
Listed below are some of the health complications that lead may cause:
Lead Interferes with Body Enzymes
The moment you consume lead, it enters the body by first and foremost flowing through your bloodstream. Along the way, it slowly but surely crosses paths with various organs such as kidneys, muscles, and even the brain. As such, it causes health threats because it interferes with body enzymes within the cells of these organs.
As a result, you may experience symptoms such as muscle and joint aches, constipation, and extreme body fatigue. You may also experience serious symptoms such as tremors, seizures, and paralysis if lead consumption is done in large amounts.
Lead Can Cause Hypertension
As previously mentioned, lead can damage several enzymes within the cells of your kidneys. It causes damage to our kidneys and can result in hypertension when consumed for a long time.
As such, there is a link between a higher blood lead and a higher systolic and diastolic pulse. At the same time, low-level lead exposure may result in high blood pressure and as mentioned, a great risk of hypertension.
Lead is Linked with Anemia
Lead keeps our bodies from making hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen in our red blood cells. This results in iron deficiency and ultimately puts you in a health condition called anemia. Whether you are in a mild or moderate case of anemia, expect to feel the following symptoms: fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, cold hands and feet, and pale skin.
Lead Can Trigger Fertility Issues
As mentioned above, lead flows through the bloodstream, and can therefore cross the placental barrier. This makes it even more dangerous for pregnant women because lead exposure may not only hurt them but can also pose serious health threats to the unborn child. In fact, lead can damage the baby's developing nervous system.
Moreover, studies have shown that lead can trigger fertility issues in both males and females. It has also been made known that lead exposure may affect libido, semen quality, sperm count, and sperm DNA integrity. In addition to that, these negative changes in one's reproductive ability can reduce the fertility rate and increase the chances of miscarriages and premature birth.
Lead is a Brain-Damaging Component
Elevated levels of lead exposure to the brain can damage the nervous system. Specifically, it may result in damage to the prefrontal cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum. This is a serious health complication because it may lead to neurological disorders. This may include severe brain and nerve damage, intellectual disability, and behavioral disorders. One's risk for serious nervous system complications such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia will also be higher than those who were not exposed to lead.
Moreover, one may also experience a life-and-death medical situation such as coma, convulsions, and even death.
The Lawsuit Against City and State Officials
Dating back to 2016, issue networks of citizens and residents group sued and filed a case against the city and state officials for negligence and call for greater action to solve the Flint water crisis. Among the many people who joined the lawsuit were Flint residents, the local group Concerned Pastors for Social Action, NRDC, and the ACLU of Michigan.
In the case filed, they demanded adequate testing and treatment of water to eliminate lead and a call to replace all of the city’s lead pipes. They also demanded that state officials have a sense of urgency in addressing these problems. They filed a motion that says, all residents—in all groups and ages—would have access to safe drinking water. As such, this will only be possible if the city’s free water distribution centers would be more accessible by perhaps a bottled water delivery service. Installing a water filter or conducting a maintenance program are also good options.
Fortunately, the group was able to graciously receive the fruits of their labor. In November of the same year, a federal judge approved and ordered the implementation of door-to-door delivery of bottled water to every resident who didn't have access to a reliable water faucet filter. This was followed by a piece of even greater news which is a major settlement requiring the state officials to fund the replacement of Flint's lead pipes. The settlement decision also included proper tap water testing, faucet filter installation and education program, free bottled water, and easy access to health programs that will allow the residents to heal from the negative health effects of Flint’s tainted water.
The Cost to Fix The Flint Water Crisis
After a successful lawsuit, the final cost to fix the Flint water crisis is an estimated $626 million, as approved and granted by the presiding judge. For the allocation of this sum, 80% will be used as a settlement for residents, aged 17 and below, who were exposed to lead contamination during their minor years. A major share of that 80% will also be used to fund children, aged 6 and below, because of the health threats brought by lead exposure to the young population.
Another $35 million will be put aside in the meantime in case there are minors who cannot (or will not) file claims until they are 19 years old. By then, they will still have the privilege to claim their settlements on their discretionary rights. On the other hand, an allocation of $26 million will be utilized to fund hospitals with many cases of Legionnaire’s disease. Residents with medical proof showing high lead levels in their blood samples or bones will also be eligible to file a claim.
In the end, this incident was dubbed the “largest settlement in the state’s history.” Still, the most important thing was that the residents and the victims of the Flint water crisis were able to receive proper compensation.
For the latest news and update about the Flint Water Crisis, you can go over it here.
To conclude, the Flint water crisis may have received a few amendments and settlements, but it hadn't arrived at its final resolution just yet. This is because the work of Flint residents and other issue networks—together with their advocacies and several calls for action— has not been completely fulfilled thus far. In fact, the provisions of the settlement are still in an ongoing process. Fundamentally, the city and state officials have not yet kept and satisfied their end of the bargain.
Indeed, clean water is an essential component of our day-to-day life. It allows our bodies to function efficiently and heal comfortably. Needless to say, water is vital for all life. Hence, when water contamination takes place, it brings down life along with it. It can result in a variety of health complications, disrupting one's everyday function in general. You see, there is a distinct link between water quality and life quality. In simple logic, the better water quality you have access to, the better your life will become.