Unleaded, Please

Toxic tap water is just not acceptable in 2015 (in Flint, Michigan, or anywhere else).

Steve Johnson/FlickrPhoto: Steve Johnson/Flickr

For almost a year and a half, the 90,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, have been drinking water laced with high levels of lead—the potent neurotoxin that lowers IQ and triggers behavioral and emotional problems. There were many complaints: The tap smells like rotten eggs, the water tastes funny, and why is it brown? But it wasn’t until last week, when a pediatrician released the frightening results of some blood tests conducted on the community’s children, that officials began taking this public-health emergency seriously.

And it wasn’t until yesterday that they actually started doing something about it. The state, along with other organizations, are distributing bottled water and lead filters throughout the city. Michigan governor Rick Snyder asked his legislature for funds to switch Flint’s water source back to Lake Huron—which is where the city's water came from before this mass contamination began last summer.

In June 2014, city officials decided Flint would temporarily draw its drinking water from the Flint River instead of Huron in order to save the city around $7 million. The river’s water, however, has a chemical composition that makes it more corrosive. When it travels through leaded pipes without an anti-corrosive agent, the toxin leaches into the water.

LeeAnne Walters’ four children started getting sick around November of last year. Her 14-year-old, J.D., was in and out of the hospital, and her four-year-old twins, Garrett and Gavin, would get scaly, itchy rashes whenever they took a bath. “I could see the water line on Gavin’s stomach,” Walters says. In February, the pediatrician wrote a note to the city saying that Gavin, who has a compromised immune system, couldn’t consume the water.

City officials came out to test the Walters’ tap that same month and found lead levels at 397 parts per billion. For reference, anything greater than 15 ppb—what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers an acceptable level—can result in irreversible damage to a child’s brain. In fact, the EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree there’s no truly safe lead level.

A child with lead poisoning presents with nothing. They are completely asymptomatic,” says Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital at Michigan State University and the doctor who released the blood-test results last week. “But in five years there’s an increased likelihood that the kid’s going to need special-education services. In ten years, there’s an increased likelihood that the kid's going to have ADHD, mental health issues, and behavior issues. And in twenty years, it’s going to be a problem with the criminal justice system.”

Lead is a very stable element that tends to stick around, whether in the environment or the human body. A study published just this week—from researchers in nearby Detroit—found that when a pregnant woman drinks leaded water, the toxin can get into the eggs and sperm of her child, possibly affecting the woman’s grandchildren. So this problem in Flint might have longer-lasting effects than we currently realize.

A blood-lead level of five micrograms per deciliter or higher indicates lead poisoning. Four-year-old Gavin’s level was 6.5. His mother complained to the mayor’s office, which did little to address the problem. Finally she found someone who would listen: Miguel Del Toral, a groundwater and drinking-water regulations manager with the EPA.

When presented with the evidence (and with some digging himself), Del Toral wrote an interim report to his boss explaining why the agency should take over Flint’s water management. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote off Del Toral as a “rogue” employee. Then Del Toral referred the concerned mother to Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech who studies corrosion and lead.

In August, Edwards and a team of researchers asked Flint water consumers to send them hundreds of samples from their taps. This time around, the lead level at the Walters’ hit more than 13,000 ppb—and that was after the water had been left running for 25 minutes. Most of the other samples showed lead levels over acceptable levels.

We are smack-dab in the middle of the Great Lakes, and we do not have safe water,” says Hanna-Attisha. The test results she released last week found that in some areas of the city, typically the zip codes of low-income families, the percentage of kids with elevated blood-lead levels has doubled from 2.1 percent to 4 percent since last summer.

Meanwhile, Brad Wurfel, a media correspondent for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told the Detroit Free Press that the city’s own water testing found lead to be within the acceptable limit of 15 ppb (he did not respond to a request to comment). But Wurfel also admitted that during the last round of testing, the agency received back less than one-third of the bottles it had sent out for sampling. The agency was also supposed to identify households at high risk for lead exposure and test their water, but it has given no indication it did that.

The county declared the lead in Flint’s drinking water a public-health emergency last Thursday. On Friday, officials tested the water in the city’s schools and found that three of them have lead levels in the toxic range of 100 ppb. A week later, the lead continues to flow. The issue won’t be resolved until the water supply switches back to Lake Huron, something that will cost $12 million and take about two weeks.

“I just find it flabbergasting that city and state officials could take as shoulder-shrugging attitude as they did,” says Erik Olson, director of the Health and Environment program at NRDC (disclosure). “The state, under mounting pressure and press attention, has finally started to get involved in a more serious way, but clearly there’s still an urgent need for the federal EPA to step in.”

The ACLU, local groups, and NRDC sent a petition to the EPA last week asking the agency to take over Flint’s water management, echoing the suggestion made by Del Toral last June. The agency has yet to respond, leaving the same people in Flint who created the problem in the first place in charge of fixing it.

“If a landlord with no training in public health doesn’t inform a tenant of a lead hazard, they can and have been sent to jail. That’s how seriously society takes this issue,” says Edwards. “So what should be the fate of someone paid to do a specific job of protecting the public from this neurotoxin and they fail? If we’re going to throw a landlord in jail…how can you not hold these guys accountable?”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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