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Bad Data — And Worse Decisions — Poisoned Flint

“Is their job to meet federal requirements or is their job to keep residents safe?”


Last year, when Flint, Michigan, asked its residents to help test the city’s water, officials made a number of basic errors. Residents were asked to flush the water out of their tap before collecting a sample, which potentially washed away many of the contaminants that may have collected in the pipes. Flint homeowners were also given narrow-neck bottles that they had to fill using a smaller stream of water than the full stream used when, say, filling a glass of drinking water. This in turn meant fewer contaminants rushing through the pipes.

These seemingly minor data-collection mistakes attest to the more widespread negligence on the part of city and state officials. Now, we are beginning to understand the ramifications. Not long after the city switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as its main water supply, residents began to complain about the taste and smell of the water; they also began to experience troubling health problems. Michigan officials, however, expressed skepticism about the “data” collected by health researchers in Flint. We know now that the polluted Flint River water was not only causing health problems on its own, but it was also corroding the city’s antiquated pipes, leaching lead into the residents’ taps.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Maria Barry-Jester traces the data trail in Flint, from poor sample collection to officials’ skepticism about basic water and health science. She also discusses how it was residents armed with their own amateur research who made the biggest strides in uncovering the troubling health patterns.

To listen, stream or download the full episode above. Below, find a transcript of interview highlights. And be sure to read Anna’s full piece on the Flint water crisis.

A broken standard

Jody Avirgan: You do a good job in your piece of highlighting the fact that the laws probably need to change and be more rigorous, but even under the low bar that the laws create right now, there’s a pretty heavy data trail about the quality of Flint’s water.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester: If you have so many residents testing with such high lead levels, the residents really felt like, “Well, why didn’t they tell us that? Why didn’t they warn us so that we could either be flushing our systems — just running the tap for a few minutes before using it — or drinking bottled water, trying to minimize the exposure?”

Avirgan: So, why didn’t they tell them?

Barry-Jester: What [officials] said over and over again was that they were meeting the federal requirements.

Piecing together a timeline

Avirgan: There were some real problems with the way that this data was collected and moved up the chain, but nevertheless, even the flawed data showed real problems. So, whose desk did that data land on and what did they do with it? Or not do with it?

Barry-Jester: There’s a researcher (Marc Edwards) who ultimately came in and found that there was a problem with lead in the water. He had been through this experience before in Washington, D.C., so the first thing he did when he got involved was to use the Freedom of Information Act and dig up hundreds of pages of emails trying to understand who knew what, and when.

It’s still a little bit unclear, but by February or April of 2015 at least the Department of Environmental Quality, and definitely the EPA at some point, knew that they were finding samples with very high lead contents. Things that probably should have triggered some sort of curiosity to understand what was going on rather than saying, “We’re meeting the regulatory requirements.”

Lessons from Flint

Avirgan: As someone who writes about health policy, are there next steps that we can learn from Flint, things that we need to be aware of in our relationship with science, regulation and health that resonate with other communities and other issues?

Barry-Jester: One is that when there’s a community telling you that something’s wrong, we need to pay attention. I know that sounds super obvious, but we don’t. And sometimes it’s not the most obvious explanation, or you are vaguely trying to keep tabs on what is happening and you don’t see that there is a problem. But if people are telling you that there’s a real problem in their community, I really think we need to do a better job of listening to them.

The other thing is that most people in the U.S. would assume that we regulate water to keep it safe. And we do, but it’s not quite to the degree to which some people might imagine. Ten percent of homes can have elevated lead readings [under federal guidelines]. Those 10 percent really need to know that, right? The EPA is looking to reevaluate the Lead and Copper Rule, and there are some concerns that the revisions could make it even weaker. They’re expected to release that to the public in 2017 for comment, and I think people should pay attention. There are consumers and residents involved with that who have real concerns with the way that law is being revised, and we should try not to forget about what happened in Flint when that revision comes up.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.