AP Photo / Paul Sancya

The fight for clean water in Flint, Mich.

It’s not the government but private citizens and researchers who have been battling to reveal dangerous lead levels

Officials declared a public health emergency this month for Flint, Michigan, advising residents not to use the city’s tap water without filtering after studies showed elevated lead levels in the water — and in children’s blood.

But it was a handful of citizen activists and independent researchers who finally got the danger acknowledged, even as some officials denied there was a problem.

At a press conference on Thursday morning, Michigan governor Rick Snyder announced that after meeting with a technical advisory council, he was in full support of Flint returning to the Great Lakes Water Authority, from which the city previously got its water. Snyder said that the change would cost $12 million, and that he would ask the Michigan legislature to provide $6 million towards that cost. The Mott Foundation has said that they will cover $4 million, and the City of Flint will provide $2 million. 

In April 2014, economically battered Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the less-expensive Flint River. Researchers at Virginia Tech say the new water is more corrosive and is leaching lead from pipes into the drinking waterAfter the switch, the number of children with elevated lead levels rose to 4 percent in 2015, from 2.1 percent in 2013, according to a study by a pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint. In some areas, that number rose as high as 6.3 percent from 2.5 percent.

One of the residents to raise an early alarm was LeeAnne Walters, after her 4-year-old son Gavin started breaking out in rashes in July 2014. He had to take Benadryl every time he took a bath, and Gavin was diagnosed with lead poisoning in April of 2015, Walters said.

The City of Flint, along with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), tested the water in Walters’ home and found elevated lead levels. But Walters said that the city government denied anything was wrong with Flint’s water.

“They went around and had meetings telling everyone that the problem was specific to my home due to my internal plumbing,” Walters said. "It’s infuriating. You're paying to be poisoned. And you're paying for this, and you're being called a liar and stupid by the emergency manager and the DEQ in a public meeting." 

The MDEQ said Walters “had an unusually long lead service line, which appears to have contributed to her situation. However, this question is better addressed by the city.” The City of Flint had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling drank tap water on TV in July 2015 in an attempt to ease residents’ concerns. He said that he and his family drink the city’s water every day.

The City of Flint and the MDEQ tested the water after the switch to the Flint River, and said it was fine. But there were problems with those tests, residents and researchers said.

The MDEQ lowered the number of samples required to 60 from 100, according to Marc Edwards, who lead the water testing research team at Virginia Tech, and Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. A spokesman for the MDEQ, Brad Wurfel, said that the sample requirements are based on population, and that the requirement was lowered because new census data showed Flint’s population had dropped below 100,000. He also cited difficulty in getting enough people to send in water sample kits for testing. “Participation has historically been a well-documented challenge in Flint,” he said.

In a report [PDF] obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the City of Flint said that the homes they tested had lead pipes. But when Guyette confronted officials in September 2015 about how they were able to determine that every house tested had lead service lines, which run under city streets, a utilities administrator for the City of Flint said on camera: “We’re not, really. We threw bottles out everywhere just to collect as many as we can to try to hit our number.” He was referring to bottles used to collect water samples, and the number of homes they were required to sample. 

“In essence they did their testing, and they got high lead, even though they didn’t look at the homes they were supposed to,” Edwards said.  “They were supposed to look at homes with lead pipes, and they just randomly sent bottles out, which would make lead look lower than it is.”

In late April of this year, LeeAnne Walters called Edwards, who said he then tested her water independently. In one sample, he said he found that she had lead levels of 13,200 parts per billion. The EPA allows a lead level of 15 parts per billion in tap water.

Along with fellow Flint resident Melissa Mays, Walters started an advocacy group called Water You Fighting For?  Together with the ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, and the Democracy Defense League, the activists helped get Edwards to come to Flint and conduct an independent analysis of the water.

Edwards said he paid for over $40,000 worth of testing out of his own pocket. He eventually got funding from the National Science Foundation to cover the cost. He said he sent water test kits to hundreds of homes, expecting to get 25 percent of the kits returned. But Water You Fighting For? and the other activist groups helped promote and organize the testing, and 90 percent came back.

"Achieving a 90 percent return rate was something I never thought possible," said Edwards.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Medical Center did her own study of blood lead levels in the children of Flint, and announced the results on Sept. 24. The study was not requested by the city or the state. Rather, Hanna-Attisha said she had heard from a friend at a dinner party that Flint had water problems. When she asked someone from Genesee County Health Department about it, she said she was told that that the department didn’t control water. 

“That’s when I started my crusade,” she said. 

The long-term repercussions of Flint’s water problems could be devastating. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that lead exposure in children is “particularly harmful to the developing brain,” and is associated with decreased intelligence, among many other symptoms. Hanna-Attisha said that Flint children could have long-term problems because of early lead poisoning.

“In five years there’s going to be more kids who need early intervention and special education,” Hanna-Attisha said. “And in 15 to 20 years, there may be more kids that are going to be in the criminal justice system. The costs are tremendous… a whole generation of kids.”

As late as Sept. 28, The Associated Press quoted MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel as saying, “Flint's drinking water is safe in that it's meeting state and federal standards.”

In response to questions from Al Jazeera, Wurfel said that “the city, the state and the U.S. EPA are taking necessary steps to address lead concerns in Flint. Free lead filters for all Flint residents are a precautionary step to ensure public health while we look more closely at exposure concerns.” 

Virginia Tech water expert Edwards said he is ashamed that Flint’s water situation was allowed to happen in the United States. “I shudder to think what would have happened if the residents hadn’t figured this out,” Edwards said. “Because the kids would still be drinking this lead water, being encouraged to drink this lead water when it was not safe.”

With The Associated Press










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