Home U.S. The EPA says lead in Flint’s water is at acceptable levels. Residents still have concerns about its safety.

The EPA says lead in Flint’s water is at acceptable levels. Residents still have concerns about its safety.

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The EPA says lead in Flint’s water is at acceptable levels. Residents still have concerns about its safety.

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The Environmental Protection Agency says lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, is lower than federal safety limits specify. It’s been a decade since the city, attempting to save millions of dollars, inadvertently exposed more than 100,000 people, including vulnerable children, to lead seeping from aging pipes — and many residents still don’t trust what’s coming out of their faucets and showers.

Melissa Mays, who has become an advocate in the city and was a lead plaintiff in a class action suit over the exposure, says little has changed in the city since 2014. That’s when the economically troubled city disconnected its water supply from Detroit’s system and began drawing from the Flint River. 

The corrosive chemicals used to decontaminate the river water sent lead from the city’s pipes into residents’ faucets. The number of children with dangerous levels of lead in their blood doubled. The water system also may have played a role in some cases in a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.

Mays, who had previously taken just a daily multivitamin and toted a gallon of tap water to the gym for her daily workout, now takes 15 prescribed pills per day. 

We’re trying to be civil, and yet no one’s in jail. The pipes aren’t replaced; the yards aren’t fixed,” she said. “We don’t have health care.”

And the city’s children have faced the risk of lifelong health effects. “It’s pretty stunning that to this day, we continue to use the bodies of our kids as detectors of environmental contamination,” said pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose work spurred official action on the crisis. 

The results of children’s blood tests by the summer of 2015 were a red flag for Hanna-Attisha, who released her findings that September. The city switched its water source back to Detroit’s system less than a month later, but by then exposure was widespread. Hanna-Attisha estimates as many as 14,000 children were affected. Lead is a neurotoxin that’s especially harmful to children, who may suffer developmental delays, lasting behavioral problems and lower IQs as a result


Pediatrician on lessons from Flint water crisis: “Flint has opened our eyes”

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The federal government declared an emergency for Flint in January 2016. Six months later, tests revealed lead levels in Flint’s water had returned to what’s considered acceptable under federal standards.

Hanna-Attisha said the ongoing work to replace the pipes has the potential to release more lead from them, and wouldn’t describe Flint’s water as “safe.”

On its site, the EPA still recommends the use of lead filters in Flint as a precaution, because a lot of pipes that have not yet been replaced.

“Understanding the inadequacy of our drinking water rules, I cannot say ‘safe,’ I can say it’s in compliance with rules. But those rules are not fully protective, especially of our children,” said Hanna-Attisha, who is the associate dean for public health at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

The community has established the Flint Registry, which helps track and understand the scope of the crisis. Hanna-Attisha said it has more than 20,000 registrants and has helped connect people with services and programs for support more than 30,000 times.

“As a pediatrician, we know what lead does. It’s damning. It is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin. There is no safe level. It erodes cognition, it twists behavior,” she said.”It can alter the life course of a child. And worse, it can alter the life course of a population of children.”

The parent of one of the children who was exposed described the crisis as “some sort of pandemic.” James Proulx joined a class action lawsuit after his 8-year-old daughter was exposed. When he found out she had lead in her blood, he was worried.

There’s learning disabilities that go along with it. So I thought, you know, she’s going to be up for a tough future,” he said.

As “Little Miss Flint,” pageant winner Mari Copeny earned national recognition at just 8 years old for drawing attention to the issue, first helping distribute bottled water and later her own brand of water filters. 

“We still don’t have clean water. Isn’t that so crazy? Isn’t that so crazy? … They, the people in charge, don’t care. They literally don’t care. Because if they cared, our pipes would have been fixed. We would have been had clean, safe drinking water,” she said. “There is no reason as to why we should still have bad toxic drinking water. And like, where is our clean water? We’ve been fighting for so long since 2014. Yet no clean water, no pipe dream fixed.”


“Little Miss Flint” Mari Copeny reflects on tackling water crisis since 8 years old

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Now nearly 17, Copeny doesn’t anticipate an end to the work.

“It’s not just Flint that has a water crisis. America has a water crisis. And my filters, they’re all over. They’re all over because everybody deserves clean drinking water. Nobody deserves to have toxic water,” she said. “Everybody says clean water. It’s a basic human need. It’s what we need to live and survive.”

Resident Nate Campbell told CBS News said the crisis is still on people’s minds. He still sees construction going on across town with the city’s pipes. And it’s still the first thing people ask about when they find out someone is from Flint.

“I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to, hold people accountable for their actions,” he said.

Seven years after the crisis began, former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and eight other current and former Michigan officials were charged in connection with the scandal — charges that were dismissed last year because the state Supreme Court ruled a one-judge grand jury was improperly used to bring the charges.

When CBS News reached out to the EPA to ask about Flint’s water, an agency spokesperson said in a statement: “Flint’s water system has continually tested below action levels for both lead and copper. Residual chlorine levels also met water quality parameters.”


Read the EPA’s full statement:

Every community deserves clean water to drink, and the Biden-Harris Administration is working to ensure no family has to worry whether their water is safe when they turn on the tap. That’s why EPA efforts to ensure safe, reliable drinking water for Flint residents are ongoing. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has primary authority for Michigan’s safe drinking water program and works with Flint to ensure compliance. EPA and EGLE oversee and track compliance of public water systems in Michigan, including Flint. EPA also provides direct technical assistance to help Flint maintain compliance and build capacity.

Nationwide, EPA is committed to partnering with states and communities to protect children and families and ensure our nation’s drinking water pipes are lead-free. By leveraging the historic investment of $15 billion made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are moving one step closer to achieving President Biden’s vision of 100% lead-free water systems for all.

Background

Ten years ago, the city of Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager changed the municipal drinking water source from the Great Lakes Water Authority (sourced by Lake Huron and the Detroit River) to the Flint River. Inadequate treatment of the river’s corrosive water stripped the protective layer of orthophosphate in pipes throughout city’s drinking water distribution system. This caused the rapid rise of lead levels in Flint’s drinking water and the ensuing public health crisis.   

On January 21, 2016, EPA issued an emergency order under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (Section 1431) to the city and the State of Michigan requiring numerous actions to protect Flint residents and address the public health threat. Since July 2016, Flint’s water system has continually tested below action levels for both lead and copper. Residual chlorine levels also met water quality parameters.

EPA has been working closely with Flint and the State of Michigan to ensure full compliance with all actions required by the federal order. Key improvements include the following:

  • Flint constructed a backup pipeline connecting treated water from the Genesee County Drain Commission to the Flint Public Water System as a secondary, back-up source of water.  A reliable backup is critical to maintain service during an emergency and during routine maintenance and repairs.
  • The city and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) completed comprehensive study on corrosion control and pipe loops to determine optimal treatment. That treatment regimen –now in place– ensures lead levels stay well below the action level.
  • Flint now has more permanent staff at its drinking water plant and has developed new and updated standard operating procedures.  As of January 2023, the city has 11 state-certified, licensed drinking water operators. Adequate staffing is key to ensuring safe, efficient, and effective operations.

EPA efforts to ensure safe, reliable drinking water for Flint residents are ongoing. EGLE has primary authority for Michigan’s safe drinking water program and works with Flint to ensure compliance.  EPA and EGLE oversee and track compliance of public water systems in Michigan, including Flint. EPA also provides direct technical assistance to help Flint maintain compliance and build capacity.

Through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016, EPA provided Flint with grants totaling more $100 million for system upgrades. The agency has also established and maintained a robust program to engage with Flint residents and stakeholders. Last summer, EPA hosted two community workshops:  the first focused on water safety, testing and filters and the second focused on the ongoing redevelopI’m surement of the Buick City-RACER Trust site.

For more information, visit EPA’s website on the Flint response.

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