By Alex Laplaza
On January 16th, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan. The move came in response to the toxic levels of lead contamination found in the city’s water supply. The declaration authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide resources and equipment to Flint’s residents “with the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency.” FEMA is now authorized to provide up to $5 million in federal funding to provide water, filters, and other resources to the Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents for up to 90 days.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder requested the declaration two days prior. Gov. Snyder also sought a major disaster declaration and nearly $96 million for relief efforts. However, Flint’s water crisis does not qualify for neither a disaster declaration nor the additional federal aid such a declaration entails because the water crisis is man-made.
Flint traditionally received water from Detroit’s water utility, which drew freshwater from nearby Lake Huron. Despite Michigan’s moniker as “The Great Lakes State,” Flint’s water and sewer costs (nearly $150 a month per household) were among the highest in the United States. In an effort to save money while new water pipelines were being constructed, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014.
Soon after, Flint residents began suffering from rashes, hair loss, and other maladies – dangerously elevated levels of lead were even found in children’s blood. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), such levels of lead exposure can cause irreversible neurological and behavioral damage in children. This can lead to reduced intelligent quotient (IQ), increased antisocial behavior, reduced educational attainment, immunotoxicity (complications with the body’s immune system), and toxicity to the reproductive organs.
After definitive findings of toxic contaminants, Flint made the switch back to Detroit’s water utility system in October 2015. However, problems persist. The Flint River was not properly treated with an anti-corrosion agent and as a result, the salinity of the water corroded pipelines, resulting in the ongoing leaching of lead into residents’ tap water. Recent investigations revealed that the city’s water supply is now contaminated with toxic levels of lead. According to the Governor’s office, the cost of replacing Flint’s damaged water infrastructure is estimated to be $767 million. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said it could cost as much as $1.5 billion to fix the city’s water system.
Lead in water is measured in terms of parts per billion (ppb). The EPA’s measure of unsafe lead content is 15 ppb. Researchers have pointed out that the EPA’s measure is more a regulatory one than a public health one. An independent research team from Virginia Tech instead stresses that levels as low as 5ppb could be hazardous to human health. After testing 271 homes in Flint, the same research team announced that the 90th percentile reading stood at 27 ppb, five times higher than the level that indicates unsafe lead amounts. The highest reading measured 158 ppb, more than 30 times higher than the level for concern.
Flint’s water emergency has since created a media frenzy centered on the perceived inaction of the governor’s office. Gov. Snyder’s administration has consequently come under intense scrutiny with many calling for his resignation. Critics argue that alarms over Flint’s water were sounded months before the state government declared the state of emergency or began providing bottled water. Flint’s citizens recognized issues with the water as early as May 2014, a month after the city started drawing its water from the Flint River. Despite confirmation of dangerous levels of lead contamination, Michigan officials claimed there was no threat as late as February 2015.
In an interview with TIME Magazine on January 14, Gov. Snyder took responsibility for the actions of the state agency that initially denied issues with Flint’s water supply. Nevertheless, the governor defended his administration claiming, “As soon as I became aware of the elevated lead levels of blood, we took action.” In his state-of-the-state address on January 19, Gov. Snyder then announced he would release all internal communications on the matter and offered a sweeping apology to Flint’s residents, stating “I’m sorry and I’ll fix it.”
Flint’s Mayor, Karen Weaver, added her voice to the chorus of criticism. “We have been crying about this for almost two years – it will be two years in April – and that’s what we want to know: What took so long?”
For more information, contact Alex Laplaza at email@example.com.