Five years ago, an American city was poisoned. Flint, Michigan has been the site of a slow-motion disaster that, for a time, dominated headlines nationwide.
In April of 2014, following a decision from the city’s state-appointed emergency financial manager Ed Kurtz, the City of Flint stopped receiving water from Detroit. In an effort to save money, the city instead began drawing their water from the Flint River. This decision became a turning point and the result has been a public health crisis gripping a poor Michigan city for five years.
For the fifth anniversary of the Flint water crisis, Grit Post will be looking at where Flint stands today across five areas of focus. First: how safe is tap water in Flint today? Ultimately, the answer to that question is more complicated than a simple “safe” or “not safe” assessment.
Normal Isn’t Necessarily Safe
“The lead levels now look like they’re in the range of other cities in Michigan, and in fact Governor Whitmer acknowledged that 70 cities in Michigan have higher lead in water than Flint,” Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards told Grit Post. “That doesn’t mean that’s something to brag about.”
Edwards has served as a principal investigator into the lead levels in Flint water since early on in the crisis. Most recently, his testing found lead levels in water of 4 parts per billion (PPB). This is below the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 PPB and well below some of the worst results Flint posted — upwards of 100 PPB according to Edwards.
But normal doesn’t necessarily equate to safe, Edwards said. Many people he knows in Flint still use bottled water for drinking, cooking and even bathing. This is due to distrust that’s built up from repeated false assertions that the water was safe — partially because not all individual homes have safe piping or service lines yet, and partially because Flint changed what we thought about safe drinking water.
“The standards in the U.S. might be too lax,” said Edwards. “EPA’s acknowledged the lead and copper rule needs to be revised.”
While Michigan is taking action in the wake of Flint, national lead and copper standards for drinking water are eight years past due for revision, with another delay announced as recently as February of this year. Which means federal safety standards still exist in a “pre-Flint” frame of mind.
But the water crisis has made us less tolerant of what five years ago would be considered acceptable levels of lead. While Edwards isn’t personally concerned about lead levels of 5 PPB or less, he admits 1 PPB or less is what many people set as a goal after the crisis.
“In most cities, lead in water’s not increasing. It’s becoming more of an issue because of our fear, our justifiable fear, in the aftermath of Flint,” said Edwards. “Our expectations for the levels of lead we consider acceptable are going down in the aftermath of Flint.”
And for many homes nationwide, filtering water is the only way to achieve the 1 PPB standard. Lead infrastructure is remarkably common nationwide both on a city and individual home level. Up to ten million American homes have lead pipes.
“One of the things we learned from Flint is you can’t trust any water if you have a lead pipe,” Edwards said.
Edwards suggests using filters on water across the board, however. The cost of filtration, Edwards argued, is virtually the same cost as testing for lead, so skipping the test and just filtering is his advised solution.
Innovation in Filtration
When the news went national about the crisis, America responded with donations of water for families and outrage at politicians who created the crisis. One big name in particular got involved in a major way.
Jaden Smith, son of Hollywood superstars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, teamed up with the city’s First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church to address the crisis. Smith, the church, and clean technology advocates The Last Kilometer worked together to develop a device called The Water Box.
“It’s going through three different filters, which remove all of the minerals and lead and other contaminants from the water. The last step is a UV treatment, which is going to kill anything that’s alive, any micro-bacterial,” said Last Kilometer’s Jaron Rothkop.
The Water Box is portable, and the church intends to post testing results online to back up The Last Kilometer’s claims. Water Box delivers as much as ten gallons of water per minute as well, making it a sustainable answer to the city’s lasting problems as water donations dwindle.
“It was a community that people were talking about and donating and everybody was paying attention and then slowly that started to dwindle and dwindle away, but the problem didn’t go away,” Smith told local news.
And Smith’s family have been some of the few friends of Flint to stick with the city from day one.
“I remember when I met Jada Pinkett Smith and she said, ‘We are not going to forget about Flint.’ That was right after we declared the emergency,” said Mayor Karen Weaver. “And they haven’t.”
The Continuing Crisis in Flint
The Water Box is desperately needed as America has largely moved on from the crisis. As Jaden Smith said, the problem hasn’t gone away completely.
“My sister and her husband can’t use the water that’s at their house because their pipes still aren’t fixed,” Flint-area activist Ryan LoRee told Grit Post. “What I don’t see being talked about right now, what really just irks my nerves is that people think, basically, it’s over. And it’s not.”
In some senses it is — most homes are beneath the 5 PPB threshold and the city is back on Detroit water. But the damage is done.
This is because the lead poisoned Flint didn’t exclusively came from the river itself; instead it came from the city’s pipes. While Flint used Detroit’s water initially, the pipes were fairly stable. But switching to the water of the Flint river changed the chemical composition of the water, and that corroded the pipes. That corrosion was the source of much of Flint’s crisis. That corrosion persists, even if its cause has ended.
Flint is ahead of its proposed schedule to replace the service lines damaged by the river’s corrosive water, but not all service lines have even been checked for corrosion yet, let alone replaced. And service lines weren’t the only things corroded. Those ten million homes with lead pipes? Any of those in Flint need to replace their entire plumbing system thanks to years of corrosion.
Appliances, too, might have faced corrosion and may need replacing. Anything from washers and dryers to sinks and showers endured years of punishment from the city’s river water. So did the city’s water mains, which Flint water advocates want replaced as well as the service lines.
While he personally lives outside the Flint water system, LoRee said his step-son has to shower before spending a weekend in the city, because showers might still be unsafe. He sends water to his family in Flint.
“People’s pipes still aren’t fixed, so it’s not over yet,” LoRee said. “People still are being affected by this every day. You don’t hear the local media talking about it. This is still an ongoing thing.”
Five years after the Flint switched to water from its river, the infrastructure repairs are far from complete, and the community’s trust may never be restored. Grit Post will explore those issues in more detail later in this series.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.