The Flint lead water crisis may have retreated from the main news stories over the past year or so, but the problems that the local population are experiencing on a daily basis have not. While this article is not about the general state of US drinking water, it should be noted that, although drinking water is generally safe in America, a large minority of the population suffer from contaminated water.

In fact, as recently as last year (2018), the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that according to a new study, “In any given year from 1982 to 2015, somewhere between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act”.

That is a worrying number not only because so many Americans are drinking unsafe water, but also because there seems to be no accurate measurement of exactly how many Americans are affected.

But let’s return to the subject in hand and see how Flint has been managing its own water crisis and what has changed in the last five years.

How the Flint Lead Water Crisis Happened

For those of you reading this that don’t remember the exact details of the crisis, here is a quick summary of what happened:

Before April 2014, Flint got its drinking supplies from water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which took its water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. In April 2014, Flint’s drinking water was sourced from the Flint River.

Unfortunately for the residents of Flint, as reported in Science Daily, “officials didn’t use a corrosion-control treatment to maintain the stability of rust layers (containing lead) inside service lines.” This meant that there were vastly increased levels of lead in the drinking water, with one test sample of 13,200 micrograms per litre. Just to put that into context, the ‘action level’ is 15 micrograms per litre, which means anything above that number is a cause for concern.

What Is the Situation in Flint Now?

The situation in Flint now depends to a large extent on who you believe. Some sources, Michigan Live among them, say that as far back as January 2017 lead levels in the water have dropped below the action level of 15 micrograms per litre. Additionally, according to statements given by state officials to The Associated Press, the levels of lead in water in Flint are comparable to other similarly sized U.S. cities with older infrastructure.

However, although that sounds like good news, residents are still being advised by Flint’s own mayor, Ms. Weaver, to drink bottled water and use water filters. While it is easy to tell residents to use water filters, this is a far from ideal situation. According to Gene Fitzgerald from BOS, removing lead from water is not a simple process, and not all water filters are suitable for the task.

It would seem that Michigan Live is not the only optimistic news source when it comes to reporting recent events surrounding the Flint lead water crisis. Both the National Geographic and the New York Times have reported that the lead water crisis seems to be improving significantly.

The problem with these news reports is that they are all quoting from the same government sources, and that is where the news reports and the views of the residents of Flint diverge dramatically.

A Fundamental Breakdown in Trust

For the residents, it is not that they haven’t seen the figures showing that the levels of lead in their drinking water are well below the 15 micrograms per litre. The problem is that many residents just don’t trust the people who are giving them the numbers. And, to a certain extent, why should they?

Almost immediately after the switch from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, residents started to notice things weren’t quite as they should be. Complaints about rank smells, metallic taste, and unusual colouration of the water coming out of their taps were met with contempt. Even as people protested with bottles containing water the colour of rust, officials were telling residents that there was nothing wrong with the water.

And we should put this into perspective. Local residents were drinking contaminated water from April 2014 until the end of 2015. For all that time, about one and a half years, people were drinking, cooking, and washing in water that, at least in one test, had levels of lead at 880-fold the limit set by the EPA.

A Fundamental Breakdown in Competence

Even if one were being charitable, it would be hard to pass this off as just incompetence. Of course, no one actually believes it was incompetence. The switching of water sources was done for purely financial reasons, with little or no thought of the consequences. But then again, some of the consequences could have been avoided if someone who knew what they were doing had been making the decisions.

For example, many cities use orthophosphate. The additive interacts with lead and iron pipes to create a physical boundary that prevents drinking water from touching the actual metal. Even though it is common practise to use orthophosphate, it was not used in Flint. Apparently, the state told the plant operators not to add it to the water. Why not? No one seems to know.

At least 15 officials have been charged with crimes relating to the lead water crisis. And all the time lead was being pumped into homes, the locals were being told that the water was safe. And now, the residents of Flint are once again being told that the water is safe to drink; although, not by their mayor it should be noted. It’s not that surprising that many are sceptical of the official reports.

What Does the Future Hold?

There have, of course, been radical changes in Flint since the events that led to the crisis occurred. Around $400 million has been given to the city. The local authorities have replaced over 8,000 lead and galvanised-steel service lines, and another 7,000 lines will be replaced in the not-too-distant future.

This may be in large part to Ms. Weaver, who became the new mayor of Flint after the crisis. She is certainly a driven woman and is determined that another crisis like this will never happen again while she is in office. A statement from Ms. Weaver in the New York Times certainly lends hope to the situation:

“(…) we’re moving from crisis to recovery, and you can see the progress that we’ve made.” Let’s hope that the progress continues and that the residents of Flint, Michigan can give up their bottled water and water filters, and return to a normal life soon.

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