Last year the water crisis in Flint, Michigan made headlines for weeks, even though by the time it finally did the damage was done. The water that residents of Flint were forced to drink, over 100,000 of them, was tainted with lead, lots of it. Upwards of 12,000 children, most from minority, poor neighborhoods, had elevated levels of the metal in their blood. Today, the lead in Flint’s water has taken a physical, as well as a mental toll on those impacted and the water is still tainted.
“I get really emotional about it, because I have no idea about the effects it will have,” Sarah Conn recently told CBC. “[My son] could have cognitive problems and behavioral problems when he gets older and I won’t know for sure if the lead is why, or not, and it makes me really sad.”
Federal regulators announced on March 7 that 90 percent of water samples taken in Flint were now below federal levels for lead content. But these tests are very misleading, if not outright bogus. The official federal level for lead contamination is 15 ppb and Flint’s water is coming in at around 12 ppb in most cases. However, this is still not as low as levels ought to be, especially for growing children. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health recommends that drinking water for kids should not exceed 1 ppb of lead and the new proposed state standard in Michigan is 10 ppb. To top it off, nearly 28,000 residences in Flint still need to have their old pipes replaced. Thus far the city has only completed 800 homes.
“There have been constant improvements [in water quality], there’s no question about that, but I don’t consider that an all clear,” retired Brig. Gen. Michael C. McDaniel told reporters at a recent national water infrastructure conference in Flint.
That’s not all that comforting to those living in Flint who’ve been dependent on bottled water for daily needs like brushing and drinking for the past year. Adding insult to injury, water bills in Flint have also skyrocketed. The state’s subsidy on water in the city, which cut bills by 65 percent, ended last month. So as of March people in Flint are paying a lot more, in most cases double their previous bill, for water that still doesn’t meet the state’s proposed levels.
“We can’t keep living this. It’s killing us. It’s literally killing us to live this and it’s going on its second year now … I’m living a low standard life,” says Flint resident and activist Gladyes Williamson. “This is not a third world country. This is the United States of America. This is Michigan”
Flint, of course, is just the tip of the lead-laden iceberg. Across the United States an estimated 10 million underground lead pipes must be replaced, with only a few cities actively addressing the issue. In the Bronx, for example, two public schools, P.S.41 and I.S.158, had staggering lead readings in February ranging from 63.8 ppb to 442 ppb. The nation’s aging water infrastructure, if it isn’t tackled immediately, could harm an untold number of people, primarily children who are most susceptible to lead’s various impacts, like poor cognitive development.
“And in the aftermath of Flint, what we now realize is … that probably we’re never going to be able to say that it’s safe to drink water from a lead pipe — not only in Flint but in fact, all around the United States,” Marc Edwards, an engineer at Virginia Tech, told PRI. “What we discovered in Flint is that some of the worst houses actually had a lead pipe followed by a galvanized iron pipe. And what had happened over the almost a century some of these pipes had been in the ground is, the iron rust on the galvanized iron pipe sponged up lead at very, very high levels.”
The scenario Prof. Edwards lays out is occurring across the country. With weak federal drinking water standards, an understaffed EPA and a Trump administration hell-bent on slashing agency funds, the problem of lead-polluted water will only get worse. Sadly, the ultimate toll this catastrophe has on all those vulnerable children in Flint and elsewhere won’t be known for decades to come.