Flint Water Poses Long-Term Health Risks, EPA Warns

Federal environmental experts warn that even while lead levels are dropping, Flint’s water problems are likely far from over, and may pose long-term health risks for area residents. 

On June 16, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sent a letter (PDF) to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Williams Weaver, warning them that Flint’s water system would likely experience future contamination problems.

The letter warns that the city’s distribution system is too large, meaning water cannot move through the system swiftly enough, making chlorine treatment less effective. The letter also warns that the water treatment plant is not adequately staffed, needs better administrative support from the city, and that the water system needs additional funding that should come from somewhere other than Flint residents’ water bills.

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Without those needs being met, the EPA warns that Flint could face future water contamination problems that could otherwise be avoided.

The letter comes in the wake of the Flint water crisis that began in April 2014, when government officials decided to switch the town from the Detroit Water System to water from the Flint River in an attempt to save money. Residents immediately began complaining about cloudy and foul-smelling water, and many reported developing skin lesions and rashes after exposure to the water.

Subsequent investigations confirmed that residents have been exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, and a number of children now have dangerously high blood levels, with the rate of childhood lead poisoning in Flint doubling since the water source was switched.

While lead levels are dropping after the city switched water supplies, McCarthy warns that the problems are not at an end.

“Our own observations and other technical advice we have received have identified a number of significant challenges to the long-term goal of reliable and sustainable clean drinking water for the city of Flint,” McCarthy wrote. “These challenges go well beyond the immediate crisis problems we have all been working so hard to address.”

Her letter notes that in a well-run system these problems would considered routine and easily addressed, but the lack of resources and lack of city and state cooperation in Michigan makes such routine problems more likely to become dangerous ones.

“While the EPA will continue to be actively engaged on drinking-water safety in Flint, the city and the state must work more closely together to resolve these long-term, systemic issues to ensure a safe and sustainable water supply for Flint residents,” McCarthy advised.

Despite the evidence of negligence that appears to be responsible for the water crisis, there have not been many Flint water contamination lawsuits due to sovereign immunity laws, which protect many state officials from civil lawsuits. The complaints that have been filed face an uphill battle, arguing that the state violated the constitutional rights of its citizens by exposing them to lead-tainted water, failing to inform them that they had done so, and failing to immediately fix the problem, resulting in life-long injury for many children.

In addition to lead poisoning lawsuits, Flint residents have sued the state to replace the water lines, and for injuries linked to a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak some say was caused by the tainted water system.

A federal probe into the Flint water problems is also underway, which some experts say could look at Governor Snyder’s actions, the actions of the state Department of Environmental Quality, whose director resigned as a result of the crisis, and what is perceived by some to be a slow response by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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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