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Water Quality in Flint, Michigan

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 2383 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 In this body of work, I intend to examine the impact of water quality in Flint, Michigan via the countless children and adults who have been affected by lead contamination. Based on existing research, citizens of lower socioeconomic status are more susceptible to environmental injustice than people in higher income areas may be. Flint, MI is a prime example of this theory—an example that becomes more pressing every day. Regulating the lead content in drinking water is vastly important due to the various physiological effects of lead exposure that can wreak havoc on the population, primarily targeting children. There are many facets to the Flint water crisis, to be further expanded upon in the following paragraphs.

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 The population of Flint, Michigan is estimated close to 99,000 people. Based on the US Census done from 2012-2016, the average percentage of non-Hispanic blacks (26.3%) and Hispanic/ Latino Americans (23.7%) were below the poverty line in the US, that being double the amount of non-Hispanic whites (10.6%) (Whitehead & Buchanan, 2019). In conjunction with that data, about 26,730 children, classified as being under the age of 18, (60% of which are African American) have been subjected to environmental lead in their drinking water (Taylor et al., 2016). The Flint Water Crisis began when the city switched the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in order to save money while waiting for a new pipeline. The river had no anti-corrosion chemicals that are commonly used in water to form protective scales on the pipe walls to reduce lead release (Pieper, et al. 2017). After knowingly exposing the population to unsafe levels of lead after switching the source, a boil order was put in place.

Children are the most vulnerable population when it comes to lead exposure because their developing brain is more susceptible to lead-related harm in comparison with a fully developed brain. In the event that lead is found in a child’s blood stream, it takes the smallest amount to impart serious damage to the brain and nervous system. Slowed growth and development, as well as learning and behavior problems, are only a few of the resulting issues linked to early-onset lead exposure. Interestingly enough, rates of lead exposure amongst children appears to be discriminatory. Evidence has shown that African American children tend to have higher levels of lead content in the blood than white children (Whitehead & Buchanan, 2019).

As was previously mentioned, children are more susceptible to the effects of lead exposure than any other age group. In a study done bySammy Zahran et al, in conjunction with the “Four Phases of the Flint Water Crisis”, the blood lead levels of children were examined. The four phases included A) before the switch to the Flint River, to B) after the switch but before the boil order, to C) after the boil order before the switch back to Detroit Water and Sewages Department, and finally D) after the switch back to the DWSD. By establishing a timeline, researchers are able to examine how water-lead exposure and resulting child blood lead levels (BLL) may correspond with the four phases of switching water sources in Flint.

The evidence of from blood levels in children for this study, started with phase A of testing levels before the switch to the Flint River. Which was determined to be 2.416 μg/dL. Then compared it to phase B, after the switch but before the boil order, finding that it increased BLLs by 0.445 μg/dL. Then for children in higher risk areas, the BLLs increased to 0.639 μg/dL (Zahran et al., 2017). Next they analyzed how the boil order, that was actually mean for the E. coli in the water not the lead, to the switch. They observed a decrease of 0.229 μg/dL after the boil order compared to not having boiling the water. And finally contrasting the data for returning back to DWSD, looking at the before and after. The researchers concluded that the average blood lead levels post-switch back were statically proportionate to the data received from before the switch. While these findings are important and help support their study, testing the blood lead levels from drinking the water doesn’t account for the various ways lead enters a person’s bloodstream. Consuming lead contaminated food, being around lead paint used in older buildings and dietary supplements are other ways a person could be exposed causing lead.

Data shows that if the blood lead levels in children reaches 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) or more, treatment must be sought—otherwise, it can lead to long-term neurotoxic effects. Those Flint children who were tested and exhibited lead levels well below the 5 μg/dL, were considered “healthy” and were not examined further. This conflicts with research that shows that there is no safe level of lead for children to be exposed to, due to the lifelong effects that may occur. Therefore, determining these children to be healthy is questionable since even the lowest levels of lead can be damaging to a child’s physical wellbeing. A study done by J.Y. Taylor et al., suggested that lead levels in the body could be impacted by the genetic make-up of an individual, emphasizing that there should be additional testing done on children that exhibit even low levels of lead exposure because they too may need treatment (Taylor et al., 2016). Since this is the only source I found regarding genetics, other studies need to be conducted in order to argue these findings.

The water crisis in Flint shed light on the fact that many children in the area tend to live in the poorest neighborhoods and are disproportionately African American and Hispanic. An average household income is $26, 330, which is well below the $60, 336 annual income across the United States (Flint, MI, n.d.). Circumstances like these represent “a modern day environmental injustice issue that similar communities are likely coming up against and households struggling with additional challenges of poor housing, unemployment, lack of access to health care, improper nutrition, and many other quality-of-life issues that pose as risk factors for lead poisoning” (Whitehead & Buchanan, 2019). According to an article from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, many voice that the lead contamination in the water is just another seemingly insurmountable challenge for a depleting city. The study in this article surveyed Flint women of all ages and at various stages in their careers. Overall, about 80% of respondents noted that potable water was an obstacle they faced in their daily lives. This is because the city of Flint was on a boil order mainly for the E. coli in the water, and coincidentally the lead. The water bill of a resident for one month was $345 because the city was flushing the hydrants. Citizens were the ones being charged for it; even though they couldn’t use the water they were paying for during those two weeks. With costly bills for brown and non-potable water, they were forced into an additional purchase of bottled water (Mayfield et al., 2017). Many found it hard to pay for such expensive bills and bottled water on their lower income.

 The Flint water crisis was handled insufficiently and carelessly; an issue that may be deemed not only unethical, but also legally corrupt. The local government didn’t declare a state of emergency until months after the lead contamination had become a known problem (Morckel, 2017). Since this is not the first time something like this has happened, Washington DC (2000-04), it caused leagues of mistrust between the government and the public. Although both of these cities experienced water quality issues with the release of lead, they were caused by different reasons. In DC, the primary source was because they switched from chlorine free disinfectant to chloramine. Because of this, residents were being exposed to extreme lead levels of 140 parts per billion and above (Campbell, 2016). For Flint, the culprit was switching the water source from Lake Huron, which used orthophosphate for corrosion control and low chloride-sulfate mass ratio (CSMR), to the Flint River. It had no orthophosphate, and high CSMR after using ferric chloride in order to control the corrosivity of the water (Roy & Edwards, 2019).

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Based on “Preventing another Lead in Drinking Water Crisis”, each case displayed scientific misconduct, failure to properly manage corrosion control, and were guilty of withholding information about the elevated lead in the water from the public. This article also discussed that some water departments were using “cheats” that affected the chance to accurately determine the lead hazards in water (Roy & Edwards, 2019). In this way, the true result of the lead tests were disrupted. Since then, there have been legal mandates put in place in an attempt to prevent history from repeating itself. However, there is no real way to ensure that these are being followed. There is still a great amount of work to be done on lead service pipes and water quality, not only in the United States, but also around the European Union.

Additionally, a large contributor that affected the water quality was aging infrastructure. The EPA has estimated that 6.5 to 10 million homes and buildings have service lines that are partially made of lead. There are several solutions when it comes to rectifying this; the most effective, however costly, solution is replacing them. This might not be possible, not only because of the cost, but because there are still so many pipelines that are classified as unknown when they were first identified. There are still many cities all over the United States that have lead service lines (LSL) in the infrastructure. Cities like Lansing and Madison, MI have LSLs and claimed the legal responsibility of replacing them. However, some locations like Denver, CO have put full responsibility of the LSLs on homeowners claiming a “shared ownership” of the lead pipes with water utility (Roy & Edwards, 2019). When it comes to Flint, all affecting pipes should be replaced by 2020.

 Considering the fact that the water was unsafe to drink, citizens had to start buying bottled water and cases were being donated from all over the country. Thousands of cases of bottled water were brought in and faucet filters were purchased in droves. This led to an unanticipated side-effect of the water crisis—what to do the large amount of the plastic bottles. Research has shown that plastic bottles negatively impact the environment and ideally, they should be recycled. Recycling is already an immense issue in the United States, therefore a plan needed to be made. Flint had to create designated drop-off locations in order to help control the waste management issues from the start of the water crisis. In January 2016, there was an increase in recycling, going from 13% to 27% (Wang et al., 2019). This was a continuous problem while the water was still unsafe to drink. Many were encouraged to reuse bottles and large jugs in order to cut down on the waste.

 In the end, the water crisis in Flint was entirely avoidable and should have been prevented. Although the current water quality tests say that lead levels have been below standards for two years, there are still various spikes throughout the city that are cause for concern. The lower income population of this area, predominantly children and African Americans, have been the main unsuspecting target to this environmental injustice issue. The blood lead levels in children are a cause for concern when it comes to brain development. The city has been updating the public information about BLLs and water reports on their website since the crisis in order to be a more transparent. With the recent loan from the EPA to replace the infrastructure and update the water treatment plant, hopefully careless decisions like this one doesn’t happen again.


  • Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., & Ross, R. D. (2016). A Case Study of Environmental Injustice: The Failure in Flint. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
  • Flint, MI. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://datausa.io/profile/geo/flint-mi/.
  • Mayfield, K., Carolan, M., Weatherspoon, L., Chung, K. R., & Hoerr, S. M. (2017). “African American Women’s Perceptions on Access to Food and Water in Flint, Michigan.”. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, vol. 49, no. 6, 519-524.
  • Morckel, V. (2017). “Why the Flint, Michigan, USA Water Crisis Is an Urban Planning Failure.”. Cities, vol. 62, 23-27.
  • Pieper, K. J., Tang, M., & Ewdards, M. A. (2007-2014). Flint water crisis caused by interrupted corrosion control: Investigating “ground zero” home. Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Roy, S., & Edwards, M. A. (2019). “Preventing Another Lead (Pb) in Drinking Water Crisis: Lessons from the Washington D.C. and Flint MI Contamination Events.”. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, vol. 7, 34-44.
  • Taylor, J. Y., Wright, M., & Houseman, D. (2016). Lead toxicity and genetics in Flint, MI. NPJ Genomic Medicine.
  • Wang, T., Kim, J., & Whelton, A. J. (2019). Management of Plastic Bottle and Filter Waste during the Large-Scale Flint Michigan Lead Contaminated Drinking Water Incident. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, vol. 140, 115-124.
  • Whitehead, L. S., & Buchanan, S. D. (S115-S120). Childhood Lead Poisoning: A Perpetual Environmental Justice Issue? Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 2019.
  • Zahran, S., McElmurry, S. P., & Sadler, R. C. (2017). Four Phases of the Flint Water Crisis: Evidence from Blood Lead Levels in Children. Environmental Research, vol. 157, 160-172.


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