The water crisis that gripped the city of Flint, Michigan, in 2014 and 2015—and which is still felt to the present day—became one of the most notorious and scandalous public health disasters in recent United States history. The immediate cause was the contamination of the municipal water supply with toxic lead and dangerous bacteria, but the true cause is widely considered to be colossal mismanagement and unsound cost-cutting measures imposed on the city. Compounding the scandal is the fact that the population of Flint is disproportionately poor and African-American, suggesting to many critics that such mismanagement might not have occurred in a place with a wealthier, whiter population. Although the most acute health consequences of the crisis may be over, the long-term effects, particularly from the lead exposure, may take years to emerge. See also: Environmental toxicology; Lead; Water supply engineering
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Flint is a city of almost 100,000 people where more than 40 percent live below the poverty line. The General Motors automobile factory located in Flint was for many years the company’s largest, but the weakness of the American auto industry caused a decline in the city’s fortunes starting in the 1980s. Because of Flint’s poor finances, it was put into receivership and managed by state officials between 2011 and 2015. One of the decisions made during this time was to reduce the city’s water bill by switching suppliers from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Karegnondi Water Authority, via a new tunnel to be bored to Lake Huron. Flint stopped obtaining water from the DWSD in April 2014, but because the new Lake Huron supply was not yet available, the city adopted an interim measure of drawing water from the nearby Flint River. Although the Flint River had served as the city’s backup water source for many years and had been the primary source of water early in the 20th century, it had historically suffered from poor quality, especially in more recent decades. Runoff in the Flint River watershed contained a variety of pollutants, including industrial compounds, pesticides, fertilizers, and fecal bacteria. Those problems, which officials seem to have addressed inadequately, soon translated into a variety of health threats for Flint’s citizens. See also: Lake; River; Water-borne disease; Water resources
Shortly after the switchover to Flint River water, city residents began to complain that their water had an unpleasant smell, taste, and orange discoloration. In August 2014, tests detected fecal coliform bacteria (E. coli) in the water reaching some Flint neighborhoods, leading to the first of two temporary advisories that the water be boiled before use. Intestinal E. coli infections can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration, with complications such as kidney failure, and they are most dangerous for children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. In response to the coliform bacteria reports, Flint officials increased the amount of antibacterial chlorine used to treat the water. See also: Escherichia; Escherichia coli outbreaks; Water treatment
The levels of chlorine and other corrosive compounds in the Flint River water caused further problems. By October 2014, General Motors had stopped using Flint’s municipal water out of concern that it corroded sensitive engine parts. More significantly, the corrosiveness of the water leached lead out of old pipes used throughout the city. Lead poisoning poses serious and even fatal threats to the nervous system and kidneys at every age, but high lead levels are especially dangerous for children under the age of six, whose physical and mental development may be permanently stunted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a limit of 15 parts per billion for lead in drinking water, but because lead and other heavy metals accumulate within the body, no level of lead exposure is considered perfectly safe. In Flint, tests showed that the lead levels in the water in some homes was many times the EPA-recommended maximum. The extent of the lead contamination problem in Flint’s water at its worst is uncertain and controversial, but a preliminary report issued by a research team from Virginia Tech found that 40% of homes in Flint might have high lead levels. Researchers from the Hurley Medical Center announced in September 2015 that the number of children in Flint with excess blood lead levels had doubled since the switch to Flint River water, and that the levels had tripled in neighborhoods with the highest lead contamination in their water. The final version of an EPA report on testing at three Flint homes issued in November 2015 noted that “even with corrosion control treatment in place in the future, physical disturbances will be capable of dislodging the high lead-bearing scale and sediment from non-lead pipes as well as lead pipes.” See also: Childhood lead exposure and lead toxicity; Chlorine; Corrosion; Poison
Health officials noted that the number of cases of Legionnaires disease (Legionella) around Flint rose atypically during 2014 and 2015, claiming 10 lives. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services maintains that no clear connection between this outbreak and the Flint water crisis has been established, but the family of one of the Legionella victims has filed a $100 million lawsuit against Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials and a regional medical center. See also: Legionnaires' disease; Public health
What makes the Flint water crisis a scandal is the evidence that mismanagement by city and state officials was ultimately to blame for most of the problems and health consequences suffered by the citizens. The final report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, released March 23, 2016, described the crisis as “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.” It faulted Michigan state agencies for failing to enforce drinking water regulations in Flint, failing to take appropriate measures to prevent the foreseeable pipe corrosion problems, and discrediting efforts to bring attention to the early evidence of tainted water and lead contamination. It also blamed other public officials, including the state governor, for not reversing the bad decisions made in the management of the crisis more promptly. Criminal charges are pending against more than a dozen state and local officials, including multiple felony charges against some of the state-appointed emergency managers.
Flint returned to drawing water from its Detroit source in October 2015. Because of damage to corroded plumbing, some residents still filter their water to remove impurities or use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and routine hygiene. Recent tests of the water in Flint homes generally find that the quality is well within federal safety standards, but the trust of Flint’s citizens in their water has been slow to rebound.