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When Will Flint’s Water Be Safe To Drink?

FLINT, Mich. — Pat Legg says she might never drink the water from her faucet again. In her hometown of Flint, a man-made disaster allowed lead and bacteria to leach into city water from corroded pipes and fixtures, and Legg says her trust in the system corroded as well. But unlike the city’s infrastructure, that trust might not be reparable.

Legg moved to Flint in 1969, during the city’s more prosperous years, to work as a music historian at the city’s once grand public library system. Now 71, petite with thick glasses and cropped gray hair, she spends her retirement playing bassoon in the symphonic wind ensemble, serving on the board of a housing development corporation and volunteering as the administrative assistant at her church. She’s a model citizen who cares deeply for Flint, in other words. And she’s one of many residents who haul cases of crinkly plastic bottles home from churches and fire departments so they can cook with and drink bottled water.

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Legg learned about the contamination in October, when the city declared a public health emergency. In April 2014, Flint’s water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River, ostensibly to keep costs down, without the addition of appropriate corrosion control. For the next 18 months, government agencies were adamant that it hadn’t created a problem, in spite of complaints from residents and abundant evidence to the contrary. It wasn’t until January of this year that the state and federal government declared a state of emergency, freeing up funds and resources to help the city’s residents.

Once that happened, Legg asked the city to test the water in her new home near the center of town. Several weeks later, a letter came in the mail revealing that the sample had 257 parts per billion of lead, 17 times the federal limit of 15 ppb. She says there were no instructions about what to do next. “There was a paper with the results, but there was nothing else in the envelope. We’re not getting any information,” Legg said.

What comes next in Flint is equally unclear. The water source has been switched back to Lake Huron, but the damage to the pipes remains. Today, teams from federal, state and local agencies are fanned out across the city, testing hundreds of homes in an effort to determine when the water will be safe again. Residents like Legg say, however, that the answer can’t come from a lab. After more than 18 months of what many see as betrayal by local, state and federal officials, residents now view the testing with suspicion and, perhaps more importantly, are aware of gaps in federal and state regulations that oversee water safety. Residents say that no matter what the current water tests yield, they won’t trust the water until Flint has replaced all of the city’s aging pipes. How can you trust the data when the agencies that gather it have been so untrustworthy?

Flint montage

What went wrong in Flint: Last month, Anna Maria Barry-Jester wrote about how the residents of Flint were poisoned. Local, state and federal agencies collected insufficient data and ignored the warning signs in what they did collect. If it weren’t for residents and crusading experts, we still wouldn’t know the truth. Read more »

The skepticism was palpable at Jackie and John Pemberton’s house on Flint’s southeast side on a blisteringly cold Wednesday this month. The Environmental Protection Agency called Jackie, a retiree with straight, graying hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and asked whether someone could come and test the water as part of an effort to follow up with houses that showed high lead in previous months. (When their water was tested in August, a sample from the Pembertons’ kitchen sink found 6 ppb of lead.) Jackie opened the front door for a three-woman team who bustled in carrying a baby-blue cooler with “ENVIRONMENTAL SAMPLES” scrawled on top. They went to the kitchen, opened the tap that had been unused since the night before1 and filled more than a dozen wide-mouthed plastic bottles, one after another, so that each contained the water from 10 feet’s worth of pipe. By the time all the bottles were filled, the samples represented water from the faucet all the way to the city’s main lines. That should help testers determine where the lead is coming from.

“Best case, it could take a month or two, but given the length of time these pipes were corroding, we think it could take longer, more like four to six months.”

On Monday, the state released results from the DEQ’s first round of testing on half the high-risk homes, which showed that 10.9 percent had lead levels above 15 ppb.This technique is part of extensive testing, called sequential sampling, that the EPA is performing on about 100 homes. Although some residents are concerned about the agency’s early role in the crisis — documents show that high-ranking EPA officials knew about the corrosion concerns long before that information was made public2 — the agency has taken control over water testing in Flint. Other tests are also being done, including the first fully compliant testing,3 which will be performed in two stages in 402 high-risk homes by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and overseen by the EPA. That’s the same DEQ that allowed the city to skip corrosion control and mangled testing in 2014 and 2015 by using out-of-date methods, among other questionable practices. For independent verification of the DEQ results, and to give peace of mind to residents, the EPA also plans to pay for Virginia Tech researchers to repeat the study they performed in August 2015 that first revealed widespread lead in Flint’s water.

Mark Durno, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA in Flint, says that early results show that the water quality is improving and that service pipes and older fixtures within homes are likely responsible for much of the lead in the water. He’s optimistic that a protective biofilm will rebuild within city pipes by late summer, bringing 90 percent of water samples under the action threshold of 15 ppb so that the city will be in line with federal law. “Best case, it could take a month or two, but given the length of time these pipes were corroding, we think it could take longer, more like four to six months,” he said. Still, he recognizes that simply complying with federal regulations at this point won’t cut it for many residents.

“What do you tell people? Test 10 times? Twenty times? A hundred times? That doesn’t mean if you test 101 times you won’t find a chunk of lead in your water.”

That’s partly because residents are now well-informed of the many limitations of federal water-safety regulations. In order for the city to be deemed compliant, 90 percent of homes tested need to have lead in water under 15 ppb, and the other 10 percent can have any level — in Flint, the worst-hit homes are currently testing in the thousands, sometimes more than 100 times the federal action limit. Because the city does not have a map of high-risk homes, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has said all homes should be tested for lead. Of the approximately 9,000 homes that have been tested to date, 700 had lead readings of 15 ppb or higher, and an additional 1,000 had readings from 5 ppb to 14 ppb.

Additionally, lead levels can vary from one test to the next. Marc Edwards, who led the Virginia Tech research team that helped expose the problem of lead in the water, says that in decades past, experts believed the risk of lead in water was consistent over time (and it may have been). But as pipes all over the country have begun to deteriorate, there is a risk of lead pieces breaking off into the water — a particular problem in Flint, says Edwards, given the extensive damage done to the city’s pipes over the year and a half that they were exposed to corrosive water. Those can flake off at any time, making it hard to say definitively when the risk is gone. “What do you tell people? Test 10 times? Twenty times? A hundred times? That doesn’t mean if you test 101 times you won’t find a chunk of lead in your water,” Edwards said.

Residents also don’t see the federal action level of 15 ppb as the cutoff point for their concern. Based on decades of research and a dozen high-quality studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendations on lead in 2012, saying there is no safe level of lead in blood and no safe amount of exposure.

In a news release, the DEQ said it is automatically sending a health official to homes where water tests higher than 100 ppb. In January and February, 134 homes had samples above that level, according to state data.4

At the Pembertons’, as EPA workers explained the testing procedure to Jackie, John muttered at the kitchen table that it didn’t really matter to him what they found. Later that morning, he clarified his feelings. “I don’t really trust the EPA. I trust those three nice women, but I don’t trust the EPA.” He’d wait until Virginia Tech came back to retest his water to decide whether it was safer. “The one thing Virginia Tech has never done since the beginning is lie to us. Everyone else did,” John Pemberton said.

“All we ask is that Flint meet the same lousy standard of other cities. Once they do that, people can at least make their own decisions.”

In the U.S., we have assumptions about basic protections, access to clean water being one of the most fundamental, said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As Americans, there is this social contract that we have and expect, and when that falls apart as systemically as it has in Flint, it’s very hard to know how to rebuild that,” Suh said. The council has brought a lawsuit on behalf of residents against many of the officials involved in the water crisis.

There’s evidence from previous water scandals that people don’t return to tap water after they’ve lost confidence. Edwards says problems with the Washington, D.C., water authority in the 1990s had left residents there concerned about water safety. When a second water crisis hit the city in the early 2000s, many residents were spared its full effects because they were still drinking bottled water, Edwards said.

Edwards is not convinced that Flint residents will recover their trust for public officials after all they’ve been through, but he thinks it’s important that the city get in line with federal law, so residents at least have an accurate picture of what they are dealing with. “All we ask is that Flint meet the same lousy standard of other cities. Once they do that, people can at least make their own decisions.”

Although the Pembertons’ first round of testing back in August showed 6 ppb of lead, below the action level, they don’t expect to drink it again, particularly after a recent decline in John’s health. They say a visit to the doctor late last month showed that John had reduced kidney function and anemia. Jackie knows they probably won’t be able to link his new health problems to the water, even if it was to blame. “I’m afraid it’s just going to be brushed off as old age,” she said.


A billboard in Flint.

A billboard in Flint.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester

Given the damage that’s been done, Legg, the Pembertons and other residents have made clear what it will take for them to accept the water as safe: the replacement of all 15,000 pipes suspected of containing lead in the city. “You can run all the clean water you want through the pipes,” Legg said. “If they’re corroded, it’s not safe.”

The EPA won’t pay to change out the city’s lead pipes, Durno says, but he thinks it would be a good move. “The more that happens across the U.S., the less we have to worry about these types of situations. But it’s a tall order, and it’s an expensive order.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver recently released a plan for changing out the city’s damaged pipes. Snyder has acknowledged that even though many experts believe the interior of the pipes can be recoated, that probably won’t be enough for residents, according to the Detroit Free Press. Weaver estimates that replacing the pipes will cost $55 million, an enormous amount for a city riddled with debt and poverty. But it’s money the city and state can’t afford not to spend, residents say.

Many experts agree, pointing out that we have to deal with our aging infrastructure if we really want to deal with the lead problem, not just treat kids after it’s in their bodies. Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada who has studied low-level lead exposure for more than two decades, points out that the public health field understandably focuses on kids with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, who on average suffer larger losses in cognitive function than kids with lower levels of lead in their blood. But Lanphear says many more children have blood lead levels between 1 and 5 µg/dL, and they probably account for a much larger percentage of overall reduced cognitive function in the U.S. population.

To deal with this as the broader problem it is, rather than on a crisis-by-crisis basis, would require major investments in infrastructure that the U.S. has been unwilling to make in recent years. The international outrage over Flint has in large part occurred because this was a totally preventable problem. Lanphear agrees but says this argument misses an important point: All lead exposure should be considered preventable, especially if you factor in the long and well-documented history of lead industry influence that kept lead in our pipes and on our walls long after we knew of its dangers. If we don’t deal with that legacy, how can people really believe they are going to be safe?

Footnotes

  1. Testing is done after water has been sitting in the pipes for at least six hours, as required by federal law. That delay is supposed to mimic what happens while people are sleeping on an average day. When the water sits in the pipes, it is more likely to accumulate lead, and the intent of the law is to measure for lead in the highest-risk circumstances. In testing completed by the state last year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had the water sit for six hours, but also had people flush out the systems before that by running the water for several minutes, a practice that’s known to reduce the chances of finding lead in the water. This is no longer being done in Flint, according to the EPA. ^
  2. The regional administrator who was in charge of Michigan at the time, Susan Hedman, has since resigned. ^
  3. Federal law requires that a city test water every six months after a change in water source. Testing was completed in Flint after the switch, but it wasn’t performed on the highest-risk homes, and there was no repeat testing at the same properties, as required by law. ^
  4. Addresses were not listed for four homes that tested above 100 ppb and appeared in the state data. Some homes had multiple samples assessed; the count of 134 assumes each home was included only once. ^

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

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