Lessons from Flint: It’s Not Just the Water System That’s Broken

The flip of a switch in April 2014 that led to the massive water contamination in Flint, Michigan, is now a public health crisis that will take years and millions of dollars to remedy. The immediate challenge is to replace the corroded pipes that are carrying contaminated water as soon as possible, and to ensure that the city of nearly 100,000 has access to clean water.

But if we step back from the immediate crisis, the situation in Flint has broader lessons for public health–lessons about the consequences of cost cutting, about government negligence, and about environmental racism. There is no “silver lining” to the fact that thousands of children have been needlessly exposed to high levels of lead in the water supply. But the events in Flint may teach us how to do better in the future in ensuring that public policy safeguards public health–no matter who “the public” may be.

First, let’s agree that clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, as reiterated in resolution 64/292 passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010. In Flint, that right was sacrificed–and violated–repeatedly over the years by public officials concerned with saving money.

The core etiology of today’s Flint problems goes back 18 years, to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s decision not to enforce the installation of corrosion control systems in accordance with the Federal Lead and Copper Rule of 1998. This set the stage for severe corrosion in the water pipes. That problem was compounded by a subsequent financial crisis that led Flint to stop paying the Detroit Water and Sewerage board for water from Lake Huron and convert to a different supply line. In April 2014, Flint started to source water from the Flint River as a temporary measure. Soon after, —> Read More