Flint water crisis runs deep

This acute condition is a chronic condition for U.S. cities with aging infrastructure.

There’s a lot to think in regards to Flint, Michigan. But before you think about anything else, think about this. For the sake of saving $4 million annually on a cheap source of public drinking water for 100,000 residents, and for the lack of federally-required anti-corrosive treatment measures that might have cost the city around $100 a day, city, state and federal officials ultimately poisoned 8,657 children with tap water laced with lead.

Lead poisoning isn’t good for anybody, but children under the age of 6 years old suffer the worst. They are most vulnerable to exposure to lead, a dangerous neurotoxin, because their neurological systems are still developing.

The lead now stamped into their brain cells, tissues and organs will stunt their mental and physical development for the rest of their lives. Lead poisoning in kids is blamed for aggressive behavior, learning disorders, ADD, hearing loss, anemia, kidney damage and lowered IQs.

Of course, children weren’t the only ones poisoned. For 18 months, everyone in town drank, bathed, washed dishes and did laundry with the strange brown and malodorous tap water.

At every stage, authorities ignored people’s complaints. The then-mayor even drank a glass of the water on TV. Judging from released emails, government officials seemed to relish marginalizing anybody who complained.

Too hard to ignore

The official denials, however, finally faded in September 2015, after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, local pediatrician, tested blood from hundreds of toddlers and discovered the rate of lead poisoning had doubled. It also helped after a local resident reached out to Dr. Marc Edwards, an engineering professor from Virginia Tech. Edwards, who’s become something of a folk hero in this fiasco, knew the issue of lead all too well since he revealed a lead scandal several years ago in Washington, D.C.’s tap water.

His research uncovered the corrosive nature of the Flint River and the astoundingly high levels of lead in tap water – some test samples were 900 times above the EPA’s safe limit. Such high levels are what the EPA defines as “toxic waste.”

The town’s public health problem stemmed from a failure to properly treat river water, which resulted in corrosion inside lead service lines and the elevation in lead coming out of the faucet. Last October, Flint’s water supply was reconnected to the cleaner, less corrosive water of Lake Huron. But that action came far too late. 

Flint’s drinking water remains unsafe since the lead pipes have been so damaged by the corrosive river water that they still leach lead at unsafe levels. At this point — and this number may be higher by the time you read this — at least 15 percent of the city’s homes have water with lead levels exceeding the safe limit established by the federal government.

Residents are making due with shipments of bottled water. A number of local UA plumbers also took part recently to install filters and faucets donated through member companies of Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI).

I’ve read plenty of stories how people are driving miles to relatives to bathe and do laundry. In the meantime, they also face bills to fix water heaters and other plumbing products wrecked by the water. And anyone who owns a home has seen this important asset rendered virtually worthless since no mortgage lender is likely to offer financing as long as the homes are hooked up to such dangerous pipelines.

With the damage done, what can be undone? 

Better testing

Who wants to talk about a 25-year-old federal regulation called the Lead and Cooper Rule? Didn’t think so. Suffice to say that one of the problems exposed by the Flint water crisis is the inadequacy of water testing and notification systems.

Regulators concede that the rule, which seeks to minimize the danger from lead pipes and indoor plumbing fixtures, is failing on several fronts: 1.) Methods for sampling often fail to detect the highest level of lead in a consumer’s home; 2.) Too few homes are sampled, and those that are may not be in the neighborhoods most at risk; and 3.) The requirement that utilities replace some lead lines when they exceed federal thresholds may actually cause dangerous increases of lead in drinking water.

An update to the rule is expected in 2017, but the EPA said it would act in the meantime. Water authorities, for example, are currently obligated to put out public warnings over lead in water, if the lead content exceeds 15 parts per billion in water samples. However, the “pre-flushing” of faucets the night before water-sampling tests can lower the lead content in samples and therefore understate lead contamination from corroded pipes.

While the complaints over water quality began in 2014, Flint officials were handing out instructions until last December to residents that said they should test their drinking water only after they had had turned on the, “cold faucet of your kitchen or main bathroom sink and let it run for three to four minutes.”

Flint has since changed its ways, but the Michigan department of environmental quality, meanwhile, still advises residents across the state to turn on their taps for several minutes before taking a test.I’ve read plenty of news reports that suggest water authorities are offering the same bad advice to test for lead.

Replacing lead pipelines

The average American uses 80-100 gallons of water every single day. And, this water makes it way through a complex maze of pipes, buried beneath the streets. When the system works, we don’t even notice it. But when it fails, as shown in the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, the results can be disastrous.

Lead and plumbing are tied lock step throughout history. The word plumbing stems from “plumbum,” the Roman name for lead. It’s also where we get lead’s elemental symbol, "Pb."

One proposed solution for Flint is an obvious one: digging up the lead service lines across the city and repairing or replacing them. I’ve seen cost estimates ranging from $60 million to $1.5 billion. But, who really knows how high the price tag would reach or how long it would take.

And that’s if the city and state can even find the service lines. The listings of which homes get their water from modern pipes and which still use lead pipes is kept on 45,000 index cards at the Flint Department of Public Works.

Meanwhile, a team of University of Michigan-Flint faculty and staff are working on a project that, “will help provide the road map for removing all the lead in the water distribution system,” within the city of Flint.According to the project summary, there are nearly 33,000 service connections in Flint, with between 15,000 and 25,000 of these connections considered to be lead service lines.

Outside Flint, the American Water Works Association estimated in 1990 that the U.S. water infrastructure had about 3.3 million lead service lines and 6.4 million connections made of lead, many of them installed well over 100 years ago.

There are several things to think about when you think about Flint. Recall that this whole plan started out in an attempt to save $4 million annually. Like any number of U.S. cities decimated by the Great Recession, Flint was on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in public pensions.

To date, the state has allocated $28 million for the immediate needs of Flint citizens, including medical assessments of potentially lead-exposed children. The Obama administration has specifically linked $80 million for infrastructure projects tied to the Flint crisis. 

It’s anyone’s guess how much repiping and social programs for children affected by lead poisoning will cost.

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