After Flint: How safe is your drinking water?

After Flint: How safe is your drinking water?

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Do you know what's in your water and where it comes from? And do you trust your state and city governments to know, and to tell you what they know?

How safe is your water? / Photo: James Niland, used under Flickr Creative Commons license.
How safe is your water? / Photo: James Niland, used under Flickr Creative Commons license.

FLINT, Mich., January 19, 2016 — Coffee tastes better if the latrines are dug downstream from an encampment.” – US Army Field Regulations, 1861 

The public health scandal in Flint, Michigan, has begun a national examination of some aspects of life that we all take for granted. Before Flint, a satellite of Detroit, achieved notoriety for drinking water that can cause rashes, neurological problems and mental retardation in children, most people didn’t think about our water at all. We just turned on the faucet, stepped in the shower, and drank and bathed to our heart’s content.

Not anymore.

The pictures of Flint’s water are enough to make a maggot cringe. From some taps it is brownish orange, a toxic-looking cocktail of lead, iron and other metals. There won’t be many restaurant patrons there asking for a glass of water with their meal. It would be best to order your water bottled and sealed.

The Flint River passes through a concentration of auto factories and other heavy industry adjacent to its watershed. Those factories were mostly abandoned during the crises affecting the American auto industry over the past two decades, but the river keeps on flowing. During the last mayoral campaign, the losing candidate stood in front of the cameras and downed a glass of that nasty stuff in an effort to assure the voters that Flint’s water was safe to drink. His grandstanding not only lost him the election, but confirmed what a majority of residents thought: He is an idiot of unprecedented proportions.

Flint’s problems are causing Americans to address the question we all take for granted: Is our water safe?

 It is easy to downplay what’s happened in Flint; if your water looked bad, smelled bad and tasted bad, you wouldn’t drink it. If it didn’t look too bad, you might boil your food in it, wash your dishes or bathe in it.

Where to draw the line is tricky. Contaminated water doesn’t have to look or smell bad. We rely on government to ensure that our tap water is safe so that we don’t have to think about it. The protection of public health and welfare is implicit or explicit in almost every oath of office.

When was the last time you tested the quality of your water? Most people don’t test their water themselves, if they have it tested at all. Here is where government let down the residents of Flint. Municipalities and states, environmental protection agencies and public health agencies have a duty to test public water supplies and ensure their safety.

In 2011, the Flint officials declared a state of financial emergency due to the blow resulting from the closing of several General Motors plants. These plants were the economic lifeblood of the community. Jobs were lost and the economy was in shambles. The State of Michigan appointed an administrator to run things, and that is when government went from inaction to outright denial.

Michigan has an agency charged with monitoring the issues that Flint’s residents were complaining about: the Department of Environmental Quality. In 2014, when Flint began taking water from the river and severed its connections to the Detroit water supply, people almost immediately began to complain of health problems. DEQ officials first denied that there was a problem at all. Then came the news stories and pictures of foul-looking water in glasses and coming from the tap.

Lab results came in, showing that Flint’s water was 19 times as corrosive as the water previously drawn from Lake Huron. The EPA recommends that officials take action when lead concentrations in water reach 15 parts per billion (ppb); 5 ppb is considered cause for concern. In Flint, levels went from 27 ppb in some homes to 158 ppb in other samples, with levels in one home reaching 13,000 parts per billion—a level that qualifies it as toxic waste. Flint and the State of Michigan had failed to treat the corrosive water with a chemical that would have neutralized the corrosion that leached lead and other metals from water pipes at a total cost of $100 a day.

Politicians began to back-pedal. The scandal soon reached the highest levels of state government, with calls for Gov. Rick Snyder to stand down.

If Michigan officials had fulfilled their duty to the public, they would have acted swiftly and efficiently to protect Flint from a serious public health risk. Instead, the corrosive water from the Flint River continued to leach iron and lead from the pipes supplying water to faucets and bathtubs for almost two years, while the city did nothing but deny.  Even after extensive testing showed that the water was dangerous, some officials pointed fingers at everyone but themselves in an effort to deflect blame for their incompetence.

There is good news to come from the Flint experience. Governor Snyder and President Obama have declared a state of emergency. Tax dollars have been designated to provide residents with water filters and bottled water. A pipeline is being built to supply the city with water from Lake Huron. Detroit, which previously supplied Flint with its Lake Huron water, has resumed supplying it in the meantime. People have resumed bathing with this water, which must come as a great relief for them and their closest friends.

It will take time to fix this government-caused disaster. There are miles of pipe to replace, ruined water heaters and plumbing to remove. The real damage, the lowered IQs of children and adults exposed to lead, will fuel lawsuits for years to come. The long-term damage is to people. Plumbing can be replaced. Lead poisoning and the damage it causes to the brain and the body is permanent. It all could have been avoided if government officials had heeded the voices of those whom they took an oath to protect.

This brings the rest of us back to the sobering question:

Where does your water come from?

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