Flint water crisis: Policy changes needed to restore public trust

In what has become a national news story and a full-fledged public health emergency, state officials now acknowledge that unsafe drinking water has exposed children, pregnant women and other Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead.

If you haven't been following the story, you can find useful information here, here and here.

Gov. Rick Snyder today put forth a plan to switch the city's drinking water source from the Flint River back to Detroit. The switch is expected to take about two weeks. Coupled with measures announced last week-including funding for water filters and additional lead testing-today's announcement is an important step forward.

Still, there is a lot more state leaders could do to resolve the Flint crisis and prevent similar scenarios in other Michigan communities. Below we identify some additional measures the state should take as soon as possible.

If you've been following this situation closely, feel free to skip ahead to our take on the situation. If you're new to this issue, here's some background information to bring you up to speed.

Why lead in drinking water is such a big deal

Lead exposure causes irreversible brain damage, which results in learning disabilities and violent behavior in children and adults. The effects are both heartbreaking and costly-childhood lead poisoning costs Michigan $330 million a year in decreased lifetime earnings and increased costs for health care, crime and special education.

The more we learn about lead, the more worrisome it becomes. For instance, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 updated its risk threshold for lead poisoning and said there is no safe level of lead exposure. And new research from Wayne State University shows that a mother's exposure to lead can damage not only her children's fetal cells, but also her grandchildren's.

As the Detroit Free Press noted in a recent editorial, Flint's formula-fed infants are at extremely high risk because water makes up such a big portion of their diet. So are the unborn children of pregnant women who have been drinking water they were assured is safe. Switching back to a safer drinking water source will greatly reduce the risk, but as the Free Press editors wrote, "For children who have already been exposed, there are no remedies."

Basic background

In an effort to cut costs, Flint leaders decided in 2013 to switch their drinking water source from Detroit to a new pipeline to Lake Huron that is still under construction. Under the supervision of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city began using the Flint River as its temporary drinking water source until the Lake Huron pipeline is completed.

Residents have dealt with a series of difficulties since that switch, including foul-smelling water and the presence of bacteria and chemicals that can cause serious health problems. Then, in September, a Virginia Tech researcher studying the situation reported that-because Flint River water is more corrosive than the water from Detroit-city water was causing lead to leach out of the service lines that connect many residents' taps to water mains.

A study by a local pediatrician found that the number of Flint children with elevated blood lead levels had doubled since the city switched to river water. State officials initially downplayed those results and the Virginia Tech findings, but later said the state's own data confirmed the results.

Last week, state leaders announced a plan that includes $1 million to provide water filters for Flint residents, free water testing and increased testing of residents for lead exposure, among other measures. Today, the governor announced a plan to switch Flint back to Detroit water.

Our take on the situation

When the state appointed an emergency manager to oversee Flint's operations, it became the state's responsibility to provide safe drinking water to city residents. When the emergency manager implemented the switch to Flint River water, the state-through the Department of Environmental Quality-had a duty to ensure residents would continue to enjoy safe drinking water.

Unfortunately, the state did not fulfill that duty. Indeed, recent news coverage suggests that the state-and the City of Flint employees under the state's emergency management-may have been willfully neglectful of federal water monitoring rules. (Listen, for example, to Cynthia Canty's recent interview with Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech researcher.)

The plans announced today and last week are positive steps toward resolving this crisis, but there are several additional steps that we believe would move the process forward. Here are further measures the state should implement:

  • Test every child in Flint for lead exposure. Currently, the state requires 80 percent of children served by Medicaid to be tested for lead at 12 and 24 months. However, real-world results don't meet that requirement. In Genesee County, where Flint is located, only 70 percent of kids on Medicaid are tested, state figures show.
  • Study the cost and feasibility of requiring all Michigan children to be tested for lead exposure. There are no testing requirements for children not on Medicaid. Statewide testing for all children would ensure that all at-risk kids are tested for lead exposure so quick action can be taken to prevent further harm. Such requirements are already in place in some states, including Delaware, which reduced the incidence of childhood lead poisoning by 96 percent between 1994 and 2006.
  • Provide follow-up services for lead-impacted children and families. These services should include social and educational support to help address lead exposure's well-established impacts on behavior and IQ. Additionally, the state should provide an influx of resources to educate and engage the community and rebuild trust.
  • Take the excessive discretion out of drinking water testing. Documents obtained by the ACLU of Michigan show that the DEQ failed to follow federal requirements for water testing. Edwards of Virginia Tech says the state did not sample enough homes and cherry-picked testing sites that were unlikely to have lead problems, despite a federal requirement that the tests target the highest-risk properties. To prevent similar mismanagement in the future, the state should establish a clear enforcement mechanism to ensure that all communities follow federal testing protocols, erring on the side of protecting Michigan's children.
  • Require all Michigan communities to identify homes with lead pipes and inform homeowners of the associated risks. The ACLU reported that the state and the city employees under its emergency management not only failed to test the highest-risk homes, but were unable to provide any documentation showing where those homes are. Knowing the serious health effects of lead exposure on children, the state should require that all communities map out homes with lead service lines, make that information public and provide affected residents with information about the health risks.
Flint's water crisis is extremely troubling, both for the deep human suffering it has caused and for the state's failure to prevent it or to respond more quickly. Restoring the public's trust will be a long, difficult process. By implementing the measures above, state officials can begin rebuilding trust and make the best of an awful situation.


Photo courtesy jooleeah_stahkey via Flickr.

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