The Flint water crisis is a travesty. When the city switched their water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River four years ago, it launched a series of events that resulted in the water supply for thousands of people becoming tainted with extreme levels of lead and bacteria. The contaminated water led to one of the nation’s largest outbreaks of Legionnaires disease and exposed more than 100,000 residents of Flint to dangerous levels of lead.
The Flint water crisis is a travesty, but it is just one particularly egregious example in an ever-growing nationwide issue. U.S. cities are currently relying on pipes that are on average a century old and 15–22 million Americans are currently getting water from lead service lines. Additionally, there are millions of older buildings across the country with lead solder.
Lead contamination is not to be taken lightly. The health effects of lead exposure and poisoning are serious and permanent. Lead harms the brain and nervous system and if exposure occurs during pregnancy or infancy, it can decrease IQ, diminish academic abilities, and increase the occurrence of attention deficits and problem behaviors. There is no safe blood lead level and, even in very small quantities, lead can affect the developing brain and central nervous systems of children. Terrifyingly, approximately 98,000 schools and half a million childcare facilitatesin the U.S. are not required by the EPA to test their water for lead exposure.
The amount of lead in Flint’s water was exceptionally high. By the time a state of emergency was declared,residents had been living with the tainted water for 20 months. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Flint resident Tunde Olaniran discusses what living in Flint at that time was like:
“When the water crisis hit Flint, Mich., four years ago, I kept paying my water bills. I had become accustomed to unexplained rashes and minor skin irritations. I stopped taking showers longer than 10 minutes. I have not washed my hair at home in years, because I know others who have experienced hair loss and scalp issues. And I kept paying that bill.
“As time stretched on, I became more and more unwilling to pay for water I was afraid to drink or even let touch my skin. So I stopped.”
Flint shone a light on a larger national problem. Our water infrastructure is dangerously outdated and communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to bear the brunt of the hazards of the issue. In The Washington Post piece, Olaniran explains that he eventually reached his breaking point, refusing the pay for unusable wateruntil eventually his water was shut off. Olaniran could afford to have his water turned back on, he said, but that’s not the case for many Flint residents.
“I am lucky, because I have money in my account and a working car with gas in the tank. With about 30 minutes to close of business, I parked and ran inside the city building to pay my minimum fee. At the counter, the employee told me (in a very practiced, neutral tone) my earliest reconnection would be in a week. Again, I am fortunate: I can afford a hotel; I can drive to a nearby suburb and stay with family; I do not have small children or any medical condition that requires I have daily access to running water.”
Four years after the events that launched the Flint water crisis, the city’s water has been declared safe, but understandably, residents have been slow to trust that declaration, they have, after all, heard this before. Exacerbating the problem, the city has ended its program to provide bottled water to residents. This is not to say that no progress has been made. In 2016 President Obama singed into law the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, which included $170 million for communities facing drinking water crises including Flint and as of December 2017, 6,200 water service linesin Flint had been replaced. However, there is a lot work left to be done. The city is required under a legal settlement to replace 18,000 service pipes by 2020.
While some progress has been made in Flint, the nation’s water crisis continues. For proof, look no further than Pittsburgh, were lead levels have exceeded the federal threshold since 2016, or Sebring, Ohio, where five months passed between the discovery of unsafe levels of lead and when the city told pregnant women and children of the danger. Unsafe levels of lead have been found in Durhamand Greenville, North Carolina, inColumbia, South Carolina, in Washington, D.C.,and in Jackson, Mississippi. And those are the only a few of the cases we know about.
The list will continue to grow until concrete steps are taken, and real investments are made. If we learned anything from Flint, it should be this: When it comes to repairing our nation’s water infrastructure, lives are stake, and cutting corners will only make the problem worse.