Lee-Anne Walters and her family in Flint, Michigan, drank water laced with hazardous levels of lead contamination for nearly eight months, beginning in the spring of 2014.
The water was brown. Her three-year-old son Gavin broke out in a rash every time he had any contact with the water in their home. He would have clear water lines on his body after getting out of the bath. He stopped growing. The whole family broke out in rashes five times, and doctors treated them for scabies.
On April 2, 2015, Gavin was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Today he is one of at least 27,000 children in the city who have been exposed to lead contamination, according to local news sources.
Even though the Walters had installed plastic plumbing in their home, lead from the city’s aging potable water distribution system was seeping into the drinking water. And cities all across the US are equally vulnerable.
In an attempt to save money, Flint stopped sourcing drinking water from Detroit on April 25, 2014, switching instead to the Flint River. In December, Walters alerted city and state officials to the presence of lead in her home water supply. When they failed to take decisive action, she turned to Marc Edwards, a renowned expert on water treatment and corrosion at Virginia Tech, whose prior research forced the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to acknowledge publishing a “scientifically indefensible” report about Washington DC’s compromised municipal water supply.
“We coordinated a very thorough sampling of the water in her home,” Edwards told the Guardian. “And that data showed the worst example of lead and water contamination we’ve encountered in 25 years.”
Walters says she recorded an average lead concentration level of 2,000 ppb (parts per billion); the highest level she recorded was 13,200 ppb. These levels are more than 200-1,300 times higher than World Health Organization standards of 10ppb, and some exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criterion for “hazardous waste” of 5,000 ppb, according to Edwards.
Awarded $50,000 by the National Science Foundation to further investigate Flint’s water distribution system, Edwards found that chloride concentrations in the city’s drinking water had soared from 11.4 mg/l to 92 mg/l after switching to the Flint River. He said high chloride levels corrode plumbing infrastructure, causing lead particles to separate from the pipe and leach into the water.
This could have been prevented if, in accordance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule passed in July 1998, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) insisted on implementing a corrosion control system when they switched their water source.
The MDEQ never required Flint to install corrosion control systems, nor did it set water quality parameters for the new Flint River source water, according to a September post on the Flint Water Study website run by Edwards and others.
Edwards wrote that after the switch to the Flint River water, the corrosiveness level as measured by the Larson Iron Corrosion Index rose from “0.54 (low corrosion) to 2.3 (very high corrosion) and the chloride to sulfate mass ratio (CSMR) index for lead corrosion increased from 0.45 (low corrosion) to 1.6 (very high corrosion)”.
MDEQ’s failure to require a corrosion inhibitor is what created the Flint water crisis in the first place, according to Edwards. In an attempt to save even more money after the switch, he says, the city managers opted not to install one voluntarily.
In a statement released in October , MDEQ director Dan Wyant acknowledged the state’s error. “It recently has become clear that our drinking water program staff made a mistake while working with the City of Flint,” he said. “Simply stated, staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not. The water testing steps followed would have been correct for a city less than 50,000 people, but not for a city of nearly 100,000.”
The main contributor of the Flint River’s high chloride concentrations, according to Edwards, is road salt combined with the natural salt content of the river and the additional chloride the city uses to clean the water. “In US cities where ice is a problem in winter, the average road salt use per person per year is 135 pounds,” he says. “It’s incredible. In many northeastern cities because of road salt use, salt content in rivers has doubled in the last 20 years.”
Dr Carla Koretsky, professor of aqueous geochemistry and biochemistry at Western Michigan University, has spent the last six years studying the effects of road salt on urban lake biochemistry.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in the use of salt across the northern US and essentially globally as well. We’re building more roads and we’re salting more,” she says. “What happens when you put salt on the ground – it dissolves and goes into the surface water and eventually that gets channeled into Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes.”
It is partly for this reason, Koretsky notes, using sand is not necessarily an ideal alternative to road salt. Not only do sand particles cause respiratory problems in people, but it also causes turbidity as it moves through the water cycle.
Currently the US does not consider chloride to be a pollutant. Koretsky notes the EPA only monitors the ambient or aesthetic quality of chloride, because it is not considered dangerous to human health.
Canada, on the other hand, lists road salts on the second Priority Substances List (PSL2) . Canada’s 1999 Environmental Protection Act deems road salts “toxic” based on available data: “[Road salts] may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity or that constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends.”
While Koretsky has not specifically studied the Flint River, she notes because rivers have a faster water flow than lakes, chloride concentrations are more easily diluted. “Especially if you stop putting salt in, the river is going to flush it out pretty quickly,” she says.
With plenty of precipitation and fresh water moving into shallow groundwater, Korestsky estimates salt concentrations could probably be cleared out in a matter of decades – if the source of the salt is cut off.
The executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition in Michigan, Rebecca Fedewa, says despite national furor over the city’s contaminated water, the Flint is a thriving, vibrant river system.
She maintains preliminary results of recent tests, which show the Flint River is well within healthy chloride concentrations, though that research is not yet complete. She says rather than look to the river for answers, we should be looking to the officials responsible for botching the water treatment process.
“Flint has been hit by one thing or another,” Fedewa says. “It’s a really resilient community and people love their city. This is just another tough thing for people to have to deal with, and they shouldn’t have to.
This is really [about] the local state agencies dropping the ball. It’s not fair for the locals who are having to deal with it, and it’s not fair for the river to take the brunt.”
Walters will be heading to Washington DC in late January to talk to the EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water.
“What happened in Flint has the potential to happen throughout the US,” she says. “And it has to be stopped.”
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