Lead Poisoning Concerns in Flint Water Crisis Leads to Federal Probe

Federal investigators have initiated a probe into how the Michigan city of Flint got switched to a water supply that resulted in extremely high levels of lead being found in residents’ water, sparking a crisis that led to fears over the risk of lead poisoning, a federal lawsuit, the resignation of the state’s top environmental officer, and an apology by the governor. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan has launched an investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, following a state task force’s findings that lead levels in Flint residents’ drinking water spiked to 10 times that of acceptable levels after Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager who switched the community’s drinking water from the Detroit water system to the Flint River to save money.

Investigators have not said who is under investigation, though most observers say the state could be facing criminal charges as a result.

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Since the switch occurred about a year ago, residents began complaining of discolored and foul-tasting water and skin lesions, and healthcare professionals have seen the number of children testing positive for high levels of lead in their blood double since the switch.

The rate of children with potential lead poisoning spiked after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a non-elected emergency manager to manage Flint, which has been in financial decline for decades as factories shut down in what was once a major automotive manufacturing center.

The emergency manager, to save money, forced the city to switch from the Detroit water system to the local Flint River, despite protests by elected city officials. A law put in place by Governor Snyder allows the appointment of such managers to cash-strapped municipalities, overriding the votes of local residents and their elected officials.

The law has been heavily criticized, since it has been used primarily to take over African American majority cities, such as Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor. Detroit was forced into bankruptcy proceedings, and in one instance a beach gifted to the people of Benton Harbor, a city with a median income of $17,000, was seized and turned into an expensive private golf course for the rich.

Critics say that the switch to the Flint River resulted in more corrosive water pouring into residents’ old lead pipes, which they were then exposed to in drinking and bathing water. Detroit’s water system has chemicals added to prevent such corrosion.

Flint Water Crisis Leads to Apology By Governor

On December 29, Governor Snyder issued a press release apologizing for the incident, and said the city will be switched back to the Detroit water system while a new connection to Lake Huron is built to service the city.

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Governor Snyder said. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”

Governor Snyder said that the state has allocated $10 million to test the water and give out water filters, as well as provide other aid. He has promised to meet with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who issued a state of emergency for the city on December 14.

In addition, Governor Snyder announced the resignation of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and said he is making other personnel changes at MDEQ based on the findings of the Flint Water Task Force.

However, Governor Snyder, the City of Flint, and members of the Flint water authority face a class action lawsuit from Flint residents, who say they suffered skin lesions, hair loss, vision loss, and other ailments as a result.

The CDC estimates that 535,000 children ages 1-5, or about 2.6% of such children in the U.S., have levels of lead in their blood that place them at risk for adverse health effects. To come up with that number, the CDC analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the years 1999 to 2002, and 2007 through 2010.

The majority of those children are poor and live in older urban areas, mainly in the inner city. Most are minorities, meaning such exposures add to numerous problems already plaguing inner city black and Latino youths, such as poverty, high crime and poor schools.

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