The Flint water crisis is a public health issue in the city of Flint in 2014 that resulted from lead contamination of water meant for domestic use. The issue started when the management in the city of Flint decided to change the source of water supply from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River as a temporary measure before a permanent switch to Lake Huron (Hanna-Attisha, LaChance, Sadler, and Schnepp, 2016). The switch to the new water source was meant to save the city of Flint millions of dollars that had previously been used to purchase water from the DWSD. The city had been facing financial issues and had been placed under state receivership from 2011 by emergency managers appointed by the Michigan governor, prior to the water crisis (Bosman, Davey, and Smith, 2016). Shortly after the switch, residents of Flint started complaining about the water color, taste and smell but the administration reassured them that the water was safe for consumption. There were visible impacts after use of the water with some residents complaining of getting rashes after bathing, and the concerns mounted after complaints by the General Motors that the water was corroding its local factory parts (Kolowich, 2016). Due to the announcement by General Motors, some residents switched to bottled water as the issue attracted the interests of researchers on the safety of the water from the Flint River.
The Flint water crisis worsened as officials failed to acknowledge public complaints until late in 2015. The administrators in Detroit had dismissed the public complaints and initial scientific findings on violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and when the officials finally conceded the city was in a public health crisis with some residents testing positive of lead poisoning (Hanna-Attisha, LaChance, Sadler, and Schnepp, 2016). At some point after the switch to Flint River, the officials in the city of Flint had acknowledged the presence of certain bacteria in the water and took steps to address the problem and even advised residents to boil the water before consumption. However, the complaints about the smell, color and taste of the water persisted, and the officials blamed to the issue on cold weather, ageing pipes and declining population in the area (Bosman, Davey, and Smith, 2016).
The Detroit-supplied water from Lake Huron had low corrosivity for lead because of its chemical composition. The water was low on chloride and chloride to surface mass ratio, and had orthophosphate, a corrosion inhibitor while water from Flint River had high chloride and no corrosive inhibitor (Hanna-Attisha, LaChance, Sadler, and Schnepp, 2016). The differences in chemical composition meant that water from Flint River could easily cause corrosion in the ageing piping system, and consequently lead poisoning to the city’s residents. The switch from Lake Huron to Flint River as the source of water created the perfect conditions for lead leaching into water meant for domestic consumption from the ageing piping water distribution system containing a high percentage of lead pipes. By the time officials acknowledged the presence of lead in the water supplied from Flint River, a large number of residents had tested positive of a high level of lead exposure from the water. Lead contamination is a major public health issue because of its potential to affect the health and development of individuals, especially children.
Childhood lead poisoning is associated with a wide range of biological and developmental issues including intelligence and behavior among other irreversible and life-altering impacts (Kolowich, 2016). The impacts of lead exposure on public health and social life are estimated at billions of dollars. Because of its health impacts, use of lead in water pipes and other products including gasoline and paint is now discouraged to prevent public exposure from the 1980s (Hanna-Attisha, LaChance, Sadler, and Schnepp, 2016). The Flint water crisis can be associated with the reluctance by officials to acknowledge public complaints and to consider the health impacts of switching domestic water supply from one source to another.
- Bosman, J., Davey, M. & Smith, M. (2016).As Water Problems Grew, Officials Belittled Complaints From Flint. The New York Times. Retrieved 4 April 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/us/flint-michigan-lead-water-crisis.html
- Hanna-Attisha, M., LaChance, J., Sadler, R., &Schnepp, A. (2016). Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated With the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response. American Journal Of Public Health, 106(2), 283-290.
- Kolowich, S. (2016). A poison in the water: in a crisis-stricken city, the U. of Michigan at Flint searches for its role. The Chronicle of Higher Education, (22), 14.