It’s hard to believe that in 2016, people in the United States are contending with poisoned water, but that’s the sad, frustrating, outrageous problem facing many today in Flint, Michigan. Although Governor Rick Snyder finally declared a state of emergency, the problem has persisted for over a year, affecting almost 100,000 people, many of whom will feel the repercussions of this for years to come in the form of chronic health problems from lead exposure.
In 2014, Flint's emergency manager disconnected the city from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started providing residents with water from the Flint River. It was a cost-cutting measure that backfired—with tragic results.
Almost immediately after the switch, residents noticed changes in the smell, color, and taste of the water coming out of their taps. Tests showed high levels of bacteria that forced the city to issue boil advisories. In response, the city upped its chlorine levels to kill the pathogens. This created too many disinfectant byproducts, which may increase the risk of cancer. On top of it all, because the city failed to use proper corrosion controls, lead started leaching from the pipes.
Many in the community reported health problems—their hair was falling out, some suffered from osteoarthritis. That’s because their water was toxic—lead levels had skyrocketed.
Flint residents complained, but the Snyder administration and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality ignored them for months. Despite knowing that there was a problem with lead, the state kept telling residents that the water was safe to drink. Flint finally switched the water back in October of last year, but the city now must replace thousands of lead water pipes, and its residents face a lifetime of healthcare costs from lead exposure.
This is the very definition of a man made, intentional, public health crisis. Flint’s water pipes are permanently damaged, and some residents continue to receive water that is undrinkable, due to lead contamination.
State relief will likely fall far short of the up to $1.5 billion that the city will need to fix its broken water system and give residents the health care they need.
Unfortunately, Flint is not alone in its water woes. Emergency management also exacerbated problems in Highland Park and Detroit. In Highland Park, people lost access to their homes and safe water, because water bills were put on residents’ tax lien. In Detroit, an emergency manager tried to privatize the water system, and pushed through an aggressive water shut-off policy that is still happening today. Tens of thousands of Detroiters have lost access to safe water.
Some are demanding that the federal government intervene and arrest Governor Snyder— a good first step, but it’s not enough. It’s clear that the state of Michigan is unable to adequately provide residents with safe, clean, affordable water—a basic human right. This is unacceptable. The Obama administration should declare a public health emergency in Flint to marshal federal resources and to help make Flint’s water safe again.