Poisoning People, the Future and the Public Interest in Flint, Michigan

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Lead is a devastating toxin. It ravages the brain. Robs children of IQ points and brain function. And deprives our society of vast potential. It has cast a huge, destructive shadow across human civilization.

That's why Americans eliminated it from paint. From gasoline. And have struggled mightily to ban it from toys. The continuing negative impact of lead remains in soil, homes and infrastructure exposed to lead in the past, before we were able to ban it from products.

And in Flint, Michigan, its concentration in the drinking water is shockingly high.

Pipes and taps in Flint have brought water replete with toxic lead into homes for some time since the cash-strapped city shifted water sources from Detroit's treated supply drawn from Lake Huron, and began to pull water out of the Flint River.

All water isn't the same everywhere. The water from the Flint River, as treated, is far more corrosive than the Lake Huron water that had previously coursed through the City's pipes and water infrastructure. As a result of the change to corrosive river water, the aging lead pipes released higher concentrations of lead into Flint's homes. Despite the urgently stated concerns raised by residents and presented to state and local officials, the people of Flint were told their water was safe. This amazing situation has gone on repeatedly over the past year and a half. During which more and more lead-contaminated water has gone into homes, drinking glasses, baby formula, and cooking water.

Put simply and starkly: the water being delivered to the people of Flint is not safe.

Independent tests have demonstrated the city's water to be unfit for consumption. This is particularly the case with children, whose brains and bodies are developing, making them especially vulnerable to the poisonous impact of lead.

And yet, Flint's water pipes, treatment works and supply have not been fixed or effectively addressed. Instead of immediately switching the source back to Lake Huron water through Detroit, the city and state are taking baby steps--seemingly to buy time for a new water supply pipeline that will be completed next summer

We don't think this is right. You probably don't either.

Because the situation is wrong and unacceptable, NRDC joined with local groups and the Michigan ACLU to demand emergency federal action under the Safe Drinking Water Act. If the City and State are not going to get the poison out of Flint's water, the federal government has authority to do so under emergency powers. Our group filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week to demand quick action.

We don't think anyone should be forced to drink dangerous water. Particularly, citizens of our great democracy should not have contaminated water delivered to their homes through the public water utility. Flint, Michigan is an American city; it was a manufacturing marvel that helped define the American Century with the production of cars and a strong, vibrant middle class; and, it happens to be a city in the center of the largest resource of fresh water in North America, the Great Lakes. Our fellow citizens deserve much, much better. There is strong moral responsibility to act and act quickly. The people of Flint should not drink lead-laced water for another day, let alone another year.

Flint, MI image by Axel Drainville via Flickr

About the Authors

Henry Henderson

Director, Midwest program

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