How the Michigan state government poisoned the children of Flint

This post will be different than my usual post. Let’s just say that it has to do with quackery of a different kind than I usually write about here. It’s about a public health disaster that was entirely preventable and had nothing to do with vaccines. It has to do with government malpractice on an epic scale, right here in my very own state. It’s a story that’s huge here in Michigan but doesn’t seem to be penetrating the national news very much, at least not yet. I suspect that my international readers, most of whom are likely unaware of this story, will have to pick their jaws up off the ground at the shock that any government could exercise such epic incompetence and in the process potentially harm so many children, but my state government did just that last year.

I was born and raised in Detroit. My parents didn’t move to the suburbs until I was ten years old, and I stayed in southeast Michigan until I graduated from medical school and ended up in Cleveland. From there I bounced to Chicago and New Jersey and, twenty years after I left my hometown, back in the Detroit area. The point of this story is that my roots in the Detroit area run deep. Michigan is my state, for better or for worse, which is why I get annoyed when bad things happen here, such as when a local “holistic doctor” spews antivaccine nonsense, when one of our state legislators tries to make vaccine exemptions easier to get, or when attempts are made to license naturopathic quackery. I particularly become outraged when a preventable tragedy occurs here, one that science told us how to prevent but the government went ahead and did anyway. It’s a horrific tale of how science-based medicine was ignored in favor of saving money—and not even that much money.

That’s why I’m really pissed now over the mass poisoning of children with lead in the city of Flint, which is only about an hour from my house. What’s particularly galling about what happened is that it could have been prevented. Most people outside of Michigan who’ve even heard of Flint at all have probably seen it featured in Michael Moore’s movie, Roger and Me, which explored the effects of GM’s closing several auto plants in Flint, Michigan. Basically, if you think Detroit’s been bad over the last 20-30 years, Flint has been much worse. Now, I realize that there are probably a lot of you who don’t like Michael Moore. I’m not that fond of him myself, but his movie did a good job of exploring just how messed up Flint was. It still is.

As a result of its longstanding financial problems, in 2011 Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager of the city’s finances. Michigan has a law that allows the governor to appoint an Emergency Financial Manager to take control of a local financial unit, such as a city or a school district after a review finds the unit’s financial situation is deemed precarious enough that a financial emergency exists. Emergency managers have broad, some would say undemocratic, powers to reorganize departments, reduce pay, modify employee contracts, and outsource work. Detroit was just under the control of an emergency manager who filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy, a process that went surprisingly well, all things considering. The same can’t be said of Flint. It went through five emergency managers over the last four years, although two of them were the same. First it was Michael Brown. Then it was Ed Kurtz. Then it was Michael Brown again. Then it was Darnell Earley. Then it was Jerry Ambrose. The names, however, aren’t important. What they did is.

This is the disaster I’m referring to:

Flint’s drinking water became contaminated with lead in 2014 after switching its supply source from Lake Huron to the more polluted and corrosive Flint River. The move — a cost-cutting measure while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager — resulted in a spike in lead levels in children, which causes permanent brain damage. A recent preliminary report from a task force appointed by Snyder placed most of the blame on the state Department of Environmental Quality and prompted the Dec. 29 resignation of DEQ Director Dan Wyant.

What happened? There were higher concentrations of salt in Flint River water, which led to corrosion of the lead welds in the copper pipes that carried the water to the city. Detroit’s less corrosive water had flowed through the pipes for decades without a problem, but it didn’t take long after the switch was made in April 2014 for elevated lead content to be noticed. Why was the switch made? Here the story gets a bit complicated. In 2010, the Flint City Council voted to join the new Karegnondi Water Authority. Construction of a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint was begun and is scheduled to be completed in 2016. In April 2014, the emergency manager switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, as it had done for 50 years, to getting water from the Flint River as a temporary measure until the pipeline was completed. The reason? When Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department terminated its 35-year contract with the city. To continue to purchase Detroit water, Flint would have to renegotiate a short-term contract, at a higher cost. Basically, switching to river water saved Flint between $5 million and $7 million a year. That’s why the emergency manager did it.

As can be seen in this handy time line, report, and overview, residents almost immediately started complaining about the “bad water,” saying that it was causing skin problems, including rashes and hair loss. Others complained of a foul odor and cloudiness. (The switch was made in in April 2014, and by June there were stories about it in the local press.) By October a GM engine plant announced that it would stop using Flint River water. By January 2015, the University of Michigan-Flint had found that some samples on campus were high in lead. In February, it was reported that one home in Flint had water with a lead content of 104 ppb, compared to 15 ppb, the EPA safe limit for drinking water. More reports followed, and in April 2015, a Flint resident named Lee Anne Walters discovered that her child had lead poisoning. By June, a leaked memo revealed the EPA’s concern about elevated lead levels.

As is often the case in these sorts of situations, city officials denied that the water was unsafe, although they issued a notice that the levels of of trihaolomethanes (TTHM), a group of four chemicals formed as a byproduct of water disinfection, were too high. It got to the point where avoiding tap water became a way of life in Flint. Meanwhile, in September, Virginia Tech University researchers led by Marc Edwards tested water samples from 300 Flint homes and found high lead levels throughout the city. One sample was as high as 13,200 ppb. By way of comparison, the EPA considers water with 5,000 ppb lead to be hazardous waste. Not long after that, Flint pediatricians found that the percentage of children with elevated lead in their blood had doubled, from 2.1% before the switch to 4%. By October, Genesee County declared a public health emergency, and the City of Flint developed plans to distribute thousands of water filters. Finally, in October, Flint reconnected to Detroit water. Ultimately, several Flint residents filed a class action lawsuit, and in December the new mayor, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency, declaring that the elevated lead levels had caused irreversible damage to the health of the children of the city. And, finally, long after he should have done it, earlier this week Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency as well:

Now here’s the kicker. Apparently the state knew months before it did anything:

Six months before Michigan’s governor declared a state of emergency over high lead levels in the water in Flint, his top aide wrote in an email that worried residents were “basically getting blown off by us.”

“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” Dennis Muchmore, then chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder, wrote in the email to a top health department staffer obtained by NBC News.

“I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving,” Muchmore said.

Why those DEQ officials took the actions they did is a question at the center of a tragedy that has left an unknown number of children and other Flint residents poisoned by lead, and has led to a federal lawsuit and calls for a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The questions surrounding the testing are in addition to the broader question of why Flint, which was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager at the time, switched its drinking water source, starting in April 2014, from Lake Huron water supplied by Detroit to the much more polluted and corrosive water from the Flint River.

And:

Lead levels in Flint’s drinking water would have spurred action months sooner if the results of city testing that wrapped up in June had not been revised by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to wrongly indicate the water was safe to drink, e-mails show.

The records — obtained by the Michigan ACLU and by Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher who helped raise concerns about Flint’s water — show how state officials first appear to have encouraged the City of Flint to find water samples with low lead levels and later told Flint officials to disqualify two samples with high readings. The move changed the overall lead level results to acceptable from unacceptable.

That’s right. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality manipulated the samples tested for lead to eliminate the samples with the highest concentration and thereby produce the result that it wanted: The appearance that the water was safe. It’s true that Flint was in bad financial shape. It’s debatable that its financial situation was helped by Governor Snyder appointing a series of his cronies to run the city, one of whom caused this catastrophe in his desire to save money. His successors perpetuated the damage.

Here’s the even bigger kicker. Even using the Flint River water, the City of Flint could have prevented the corrosion of its copper and lead pipes relatively inexpensively:

Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who has been testing Flint water, says treatment could have corrected much of the problem early on — for as little as $100 a day — but officials in the city of 100,000 people didn’t take action.

“There is no question that if the city had followed the minimum requirements under federal law that none of this would have happened,” said Edwards, who obtained the Muchmore email through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request.

One hundred dollars a day would equal a mere $36,500 a year, a pittance in a budget of millions. To save $36,500 a year or maybe a little more, the city failed to treat the Flint River water, leaving it corrosive and able to leach lead and copper from the aging pipes used to transport it. As a consequence, an as yet unknown number of children have been poisoned with lead, which is most damaging to the developing brain. This can result in developmental delay, decreased IQ, decreased hearing, and ADHD. There will be behavioral problems. Lead exposure has even been linked to violent crime. Flint will be paying for this ecological disaster for decades. They’re still paying financially now. It’s not even clear whether the switch back to Detroit water (from Lake Huron) is in time.

Here’s what’s depressing. This is all straightforward science. We know what levels of lead are safe and what levels are not. We know what the effects of lead poisoning are in children. We know how to prevent them. Chemists specializing in water purification know that corrosive water placed in old copper and lead pipes will leach lead and copper out of them. They even know how to treat the water to prevent this leaching! Yet that wasn’t done, all to save a trivial amount of money.

It’s hard for me to think of an example of such an epic public health failure on the part of a state government, much less Michigan’s. I’m not sure I’m willing to go quite as far as Michael Moore, who is demanding the arrest of Governor Snyder (that might change; it’s not clear yet what Snyder knew and when), but I agree that heads need to roll and politicians need to be held accountable. I don’t see that happening—yet. Sure, there’ve been some resignations of sacrificial lambs, but no one really in power has yet been held accountable. I fear that no one will be. Even now, Gov. Snyder is doing his best to dodge questions about the debacle.