If people in Flint, Michigan, were told their water is now safe to drink, Siddhartha Roy thinks they’d be hesitant to turn on the tap.
“People are so distrustful now,” he told Healthline.
Roy is part of the engineering team from Virginia Tech behind the Flint Water Study, which helped expose high levels of lead contamination in the city of about 100,000 people.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has declared Genesee County a public health state of emergency after dangerous amounts of lead were discovered in the city’s water supply.
Residents are now being told the water is safe for bathing. Asked by reporter Charlie LeDuff last week, Snyder said he’d let his own grandchildren bathe in Flint water.
“We don’t know there are necessarily high levels of lead in every bathtub,” he said.
Lead is a Toxin
While Flint public officials had initially assured people their water was safe to drink, independent testing from groups like the Virginia Tech team found the opposite to be true.
“In their mind, it wasn’t a bad decision. They wanted to save money, but there was no scientific study done,” Roy said. “You cannot screw up on such an epic level when thousands of people are involved.”
In April, the Virginia Tech team sampled water in 271 Flint homes, many built before 1986 when lead in pipes was outlawed. While no amounts of lead are considered safe, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows 15 parts per billion in “first draw” water or five parts per billion after it has run for a minute or more.
The team found several homes where lead levels exceeded 2,000 parts per billion. The highest was 13,000, which by EPA standards is considered “toxic waste.”
Dr. Sharon Swindell, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor and a pediatrician at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said lead is basically a toxin, so no level is safe.
“The biggest concerns with even low exposure have to do with how it may affect brain development, especially for children under the age of 6,” she told Healthline. “Long-term functioning effects vary from child to child and the opportunities for developmental enrichment, sound nutrition, and other such wrap-around care.”
In addition, lead-laden water can be hazardous for pregnant women. A 2013 study published in the Washington Post concluded that late-term miscarriages and spontaneous abortions happened at an unusually high rate for women in Washington, D.C., between 2000 and 2003 when the city’s drinking water was contaminated with lead.
Swindell said parents who live in older homes and are concerned about lead poisoning should have both paint and water tested for lead. There are builders with lead abatement certifications that can strip the paint safely and replace it with lead-free paint or contain the existing paint.
Switching Water Sources Spurred Contamination
The problem in Flint began as the city looked to save money on its water supply during its second financial emergency since 2000.
In April 2014, Flint began drawing its water from the adjacent Flint River instead of from Detroit. It was supposed to be a temporary solution while a pipeline from Lake Huron was completed.
"It’s regular, good, pure drinking water and it’s right in our back yard,” then-Mayor Dayne Walling said in a press release at the time.
Complaints from residents began coming in, including a caustic smell and taste of the water. There was an E. coli outbreak after fecal matter was detected.
General Motors stopped using the water in their plants because it rusted their machinery. Citizens began showing up at city meetings with bottles of murky brown water.
Still, after a few boil advisories, residents were routinely told their drinking water was safe to consume.
Researchers later found the Flint River water contains high levels of iron, which is corrosive to the city’s old pipes. An anti-corrosive chemical could have been added to mitigate the problem, but it wasn’t used.
“Michigan said everything was fine and people should relax,” Roy said.
The Virginia Tech team became fully involved in Flint’s water issue in August, but city and state officials had difficulty believing experts from outside their communities.
According to Genesee County Health department tests, there was no rise in lead levels in children after switching the water source.
Last September, local doctors begin sounding the alarm that high levels of lead were showing up in the blood of local children.
That began finger-pointing between city, county, and state officials at who was responsible.
On Sept. 25, the city of Flint issued a lead advisory about the water and offered free water filters to residents.
That same day, Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, wrote the governor an email saying “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into political football.”
Muchmore resigned from his position this past week, yet another public official in Michigan to leave, following the increased media attention on the issue.
This, however, isn’t the first time lead poisoning has been an issue in Flint.
Lead Poisoning a Continued Threat
In 2013, before the Flint River became city’s source of water, there were 158 children under the age of 6 confirmed to have lead poisoning, according to state records. Only 21 percent of children in the county were tested for lead poisoning.
Lawrence J. Buckfire, an attorney in Southfield, Mich., has represented plaintiffs in civil cases of lead poisoning in Flint over the past 20 years with primary exposure being from lead paint and dust in dilapidated housing.
“Despite handling hundreds of cases, I have never been able to prove that a child’s lead poisoning came from water contamination. The amount of water that would have to be consumed to cause elevated blood levels is substantial,” he told Healthline. “That being said, introducing a new source of lead into a child’s system may increase the blood lead level, but again, it’s hard to prove elevations were caused by water and not continuing exposure to paint hazards.”
Buckfire says because of the political climate in the state and other factors, it’s unlikely any government official would be charged criminally.
“Additionally, there are strict immunity laws that prevent governmental entities in Michigan from civil lawsuits,” he said, “so I would be surprised if the individual residents receive any compensation at all, except perhaps for a refund of their water bills.”
Could water contamination like the situation in Flint happen elsewhere?
The elements exist in many communities as there are still hundreds of thousands of homes built before 1980 with lead in their pipes. However, it would also require a municipality to pipe in contaminated water that is not effectively treated.