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Dec. 14, 2017, marks two years since the City of Flint declared a State of Emergency in response to the man-made water disaster that for years has demanded the attention of residents, activists and officials at all levels of the government.
In January 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) said that the lead levels in the city’s water tested below the federal limit.
“In terms of the public health crisis, they’re now in a range where the level of problems is believed to be comparable to other cities with old pipes,” said Dr. Marc Edwards, the environmental and water resources engineering professor at Virginia Tech who led the research team that helped uncover the water crisis in Flint.
Since the start of the water crisis, Flint has had issues across the board from economical to cultural to medical. The many problems in Flint are a result of a major chain of reactions, with most pointing to the switch of Flint’s water source to the Flint River as the start of that chain.
In April 2014, Flint temporarily switched its water source to the Flint River in order to reduce costs. Flint officials neglected to add corrosion controls to the Flint River water, causing it to leach the city’s lead pipes.
The switch led to Flint’s 100,000 residents potentially being exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water, which led to incredible health issues such as decreased fertility and a Legionnaires' disease outbreak, which has been blamed for 12 deaths.
The first sign of trouble was on Aug. 14, 2014, when the city put out a boil water advisory, according to CNN. The advisory was lifted six days later, but another was issued Sept. 5, 2014.
In March 2015, a Flint resident told the EPA that a test indicated the lead level in her water to be 397 ppb, over 26 times greater than the EPA limit of 15 ppb.
Fast forward to the first month of 2017 when the MDEQ announced that the lead levels in the city’s water tested below the federal limit. At the same time, residents are also told that they should continue using the free water filter provided to them by the state.
Meeting the federal standard doesn’t mean it’s time to celebrate in Flint, according to Edwards.
“The lead standards are known to be out of date and certainly meeting them is nothing to brag about,” Edwards said.
Even with the water meeting the federal standard for lead, Flint has not been relieved of major issues due to the dangerous water.
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According to MLive, in February 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found the first genetic link between the Legionnaires’ outbreak and Flint water. Legionnaires' disease is a respiratory disease caused by Legionella bacteria, according to the CDC.
The outbreak was the cause of 12 deaths between 2014 and 2015, according to the New York Times.
In addition to Legionnaires' disease, the lead-poisoned water has also been tied to an increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages, according to a paper by two professors of economics, released in August 2017.
The paper found that fertility rates decreased by 12 percent and fetal death rates increased by 58 percent. Overall health at birth also decreased compared to other cities in Michigan.
Six officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter tied to the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, according to the Chicago Tribune. Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical executive, was the 15th person to be criminally charged in the water crisis, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In addition to involuntary manslaughter, city and state officials have been charged with acts such as tampering with evidence, misconduct in office and willful neglect.
As a consequence of the dangerous water and the neglect of officials, Edwards said that a whole other crisis has emerged in Flint: a crisis of confidence. Many Flint residents still hold skepticism and doubt in their government.
Then there is the water infrastructure death spiral, which according to Edwards, means that water rates are higher than many residents can afford.
“The water rates are still going to remain stubbornly high,” Edwards said.
Infrastructure money, including $100 million from the EPA in March 2017, and loan forgiveness from the state are alleviating financial pressures in Flint.
According to Edwards, there once was a projection that water rates would have to double in the next five years from their already high rates, but due to state and federal help, it’s believed that those higher rates will not occur to the same extent as what was once considered probable.
“While the outlook isn’t necessarily bright, it’s much better than it was just a year or so ago,” Edwards said.
Another long-lasting effect of the Flint water crisis is the national attention that it brought to certain issues.
The Flint situation was the start of a national conversation about the United States' aging water infrastructure, according to Edwards.
“You can only ignore your pipe system for so long before civilization as we know it ends,” Edwards said.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, many of the pipes delivering drinking water across the country were laid in the early to mid-20th century. As the pipes have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, many are at or coming to the end of their time to be considered efficient or safe.
The Flint crisis also drew national attention to infrastructure inequality, a countrywide problem, according to Edwards.
“So many of our poor and most vulnerable Americans don’t enjoy the same access to safe, affordable drinking water that the rest of us take for granted,” Edwards said.
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Edwards believes that Flint has served as a wake-up call for many Americans.
“Even though the vast majority of us do enjoy access to relatively safe, affordable water, we now realize that too many of us do not,” Edwards said.
Edwards hopes that because the existing lead law is not protective enough, other cities with lead pipes will put programs in to provide filters to lower income consumers.
“It’s an opportunity to unite Americans in common cause against a problem,” Edwards said.
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