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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2018

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The Paradox of Water and the Flint Crisis

People in the United States have grown up believing two assumptions about tap water, assumptions that appear so basic they hardly need to be stated: (1) that there is a virtually unlimited supply of safe drinking water from the tap available to each household and (2) that the cost to deliver that tap water is small. So, what is to be made of the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which residents drank contaminated water for more than a year, resulting in severe health and social impacts and a very costly cleanup that is still not complete? Unfortunately, these assumptions have been far from correct all along, and only now are the fallacies becoming evident.

For a country to ensure access to safe drinking water for all its citizens, drinking-water management practices must start from the premise that given water's chemical properties, a source used for drinking water will have dissolved compounds and microorganisms. This translates into requiring careful and complex treatment, monitoring, and assessment at all stages from source to tap, to render the water safe. This appears not to have been understood by the decision makers in Flint. Instead, their decisions appear to have been driven primarily by the desire to keep water management costs down, a very risky policy, considering the inherent chemical properties of water.

What went wrong in Flint that resulted in the contaminations of the city's drinking water supply?1,2,3,4,5,6 What went wrong in the decision making that led to the Flint water crisis?7 And most importantly, what can be done to prevent future Flints?

The Flint River in Flint, Michigan, the source of the contaminated water distributed to residents of the city.

The Flint River in Flint, Michigan, the source of the contaminated water distributed to residents of the city. Image courtesy of

The Paradox of Water: Essential to Life but Also a Potential Threat

Water is essential for life to exist on Earth. However, from a human health perspective, it is “safe” drinking water that is essential. According to the World Health Organization, the definition of safe drinking water is water that “does not represent any significant risk to health over a lifetime of consumption, including different sensitivities that may occur between life stages.”8

The paradox of water is that the very same properties that make it essential for life also make it very easily contaminated to the point where it potentially becomes a threat to life. From a chemical perspective, the formula of water, H2O, dictates its molecular structure and properties. This translates into water being a liquid on Earth's surface and into water having the ability to dissolve almost any compound. Water is said to be the “universal solvent.” This solvent property of water is key to sustaining life. The liquid water medium allows for biologically important molecules to dissolve, interact, and react, which are all essential to the chemical processes that sustain life. At the same time, water's ability to dissolve compounds makes it very challenging to keep water safe. This does not mean that everything that dissolves in water is harmful, but because water is such a good solvent, chemical compounds readily dissolve in it to varying degrees. Once they are dissolved, if these compounds happen to be toxic, then consuming this water is a potential threat to health.

The paradox of water is that the very same properties that make it essential for life also make it very easily contaminated to the point where it potentially becomes a threat to life.

Even if a compound is not highly soluble in water, it could dissolve to an extent that exceeds its toxicity level, rendering the water harmful. Certainly, this is the case for the 80+ chemical contaminants currently included in the U.S. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations9 under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).10 Some of the maximum allowed concentration levels (or maximum contaminant levels [MCLs]) are extremely low. For example, 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane, used as a fumigant in agriculture, has an MCL of 0.0002 mg/L (0.2 parts per billion [ppb]).11 The MCL of dioxin, emitted during the burning of waste, is 0.00000003 mg/L (or 0.03 parts per trillion [ppt]).10 All this is to say that preventing compounds from dissolving in water at levels that do not exceed their MCLs is challenging. Further, once a compound is dissolved removing it is not trivial—again because water is the universal solvent. Life thrives in water, and if the microorganisms present in water are pathogens then this is of concern for human consumption. In fact, a primary reason that so many people across the globe lack access to safe water is that the principal source of contamination is pathogens. Once water is contaminated by chemicals or pathogens, rendering it safe requires well-designed treatments followed by careful monitoring that ensures that the treated water does not get recontaminated.

There are many recent examples of the ease with which water gets contaminated. After Flint, there has been increasing awareness of the number of communities that have unsafe levels of lead in the water they consume. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council indicates that in 2015, water delivered by 1,110 water systems in the United States, serving about 3.9 million people, had lead levels that exceeded the action level of 15 ppb.6

In January 2014, a chemical spill from a storage tank contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia, which is used as a source for drinking water for residents in the Charleston, West Virginia, area. The chemical methylcyclohexane methanol entered the drinking-water system and caused residents to experience stomach and skin infections.12 While a recent study suggests no known long-term health risks,13 the immediate health impacts—nausea, irritations—required residents to rely on bottled water for several days. This spill resulted in an estimated $60 million cost to the local economy, which does not include cleanup costs.14

In the fall of 2014, an analysis of drinking-water samples from the town of Hoosick Falls, New York, revealed the presence of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).15,16 The PFOA contamination was a result of its use in a local plastics plant. It was not until late 2015 that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) acted to address the presence of PFOA in the drinking water. The DEC installed a filtration system in the water treatment plant to address the dissolved PFOA and in March 2016 announced that the drinking water was safe for consumption.17 There have also been concerns that chemicals used in firefighting foams have been detected in the drinking water in some military bases.18 These compounds include PFOA and other perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAs). The Pentagon is looking into possible contamination by these chemicals in the drinking water in almost 400 military bases.19 In September 2017 the organization Environmental Working Group released a report on the presence of a solvent 1,4-dioxane (not to be confused with dioxin, mentioned earlier) in drinking-water systems in 27 U.S. states that serve 7 million people.20 All of these compounds, PFOA, PFA, and 1,4-dioxane, are considered to be likely carcinogens but currently none are regulated contaminants under the National Drinking Water Standards.18,21 All three, along with many other compounds, are under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for possible inclusion in the list of regulated drinking-water contaminants.22

Given the fundamental chemistry of water that allows it to be easily contaminated, the preceding examples just serve to emphasize that drinking-water treatment and management must be carefully scrutinized through this chemical lens. A precautionary principle should be employed, in which water management decisions start with the assumption that the source water is contaminated and will require careful treatment and monitoring to ensure that the treated water meets standards. Further, even after treatment, there must be careful monitoring to ensure that the water is not compromised between the treatment plant and the consumer. The cost of such an approach may seem on the face of it to be high. However, the Flint water crisis is a tragic example of why this up-front investment is always worth it, as the social and economic costs to address the impact of unsafe water are always substantially higher.

What Happened in Flint, Michigan?*

Table 1.  List of Acronyms Referenced in the Article

CSMRchloride to sulfate mass ratio
DECDepartment of Environmental Conservation
DWSDDetroit Water and Sewage Department
FWSCFlint Water Service Center
KWAKaregnondi Water Authority
MCHMmethylcyclohexane methanol
MCLmaximum contaminant level
MDEQMichigan Department of Environmental Quality
MDGsUN Millennium Development Goals
MDHHSMichigan Department of Health and Human Services
PFOAperfluorooctanoic acid
SDWASafe Drinking Water Act
TTHMstotal trihalomethanes

Table 2.  Names and Roles of Key People Referenced in the Article

Lee Anne WaltersFlint resident/activist
Miguel Del ToralEPA employee
Marc EdwardsProfessor of civil and environmental engineering, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
Mona Hanna-AttishaPediatrician, Hurley Medical Center, Flint, MI
Governor SnyderGovernor of Michigan

Prior to 1967, the city of Flint received treated water from the Flint Water Service Center (FWSC), which used the Flint River as its source.7,23,24 In 1967, as a result of rising population and the inability of the FWSC to deliver sufficient water to the residents, the city of Flint switched to receiving treated drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD),7,23,24 which uses the Great Lakes Water System (Lake Huron and the Detroit River systems) as the water source.25 While the switch to the DWSD was triggered by capacity, it was clear even at that time that the quality of the water in the Flint River was being compromised due to discharges from industries and the municipality and runoff from streets.23 Between 1967 and 2014, the residents of Flint received treated water from the DWSD. Over the years, the FWSC served as a backup to the DWSD.7,23,24

With the decline of the U.S. automobile industry toward the end of the 20th century, the population of Flint decreased from a peak of almost 200,000 residents in 1960 to just below 100,000. Along with this population decline came a shrinking tax base and severe budget problems. By 2011, things became so bad financially that the governor of Michigan appointed an emergency manager to take over the Flint budget and look for ways to bring the deficit under control.23 The emergency manager had decision-making authority over Flint city officials.

During 2012–2013, the emergency manager decided to shift the drinking water supply for Flint from DWSD to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). This was a “cost-saving” measure, since the KWA offered water rates lower than those of the DWSD.1–6,23 The KWA is in the process of building a water pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron with a target completion date of 2017. Needing an interim solution, the emergency manager opted to turn to the Flint River as the source for municipal water and to use the water treatment plant that had not been in consistent use since the 1960s. 1–6,23 Since the FWSC was not fully operational, the city of Flint hired an engineering firm to provide plans for upgrades to the FWSC to treat the Flint River water.26 This same engineering firm was also hired for the construction of the upgrades.26

The Flint Water Treatment Plant, Flint, Michigan, which personnel warned was not up to the task of adequately treating the water from the Flint River.

The Flint Water Treatment Plant, Flint, Michigan, which personnel warned was not up to the task of adequately treating the water from the Flint River.

On April 25, 2014, the water from the Flint River treated by the FWSC began flowing through the pipes of the city delivering water to the residents.1–6 There is evidence suggesting that personnel in the FWSC warned against opening the plant at this time, as there were concerns that the facility was not ready to treat and monitor the water that was leaving the facility.7,27

By May 2014, problems with the water being delivered to the residents of Flint were evident. The water was often brown and had a foul odor, and some residents complained of skin rashes and hair loss when they bathed.1–6 The city officials assured the community that the water was safe.1–6 In August, the city issued an Escherichia coli alert and a call to residents to boil the tap water before drinking it.1–7 These “boil alerts” continued until September 9, 2014.

The next alert came on January 2, 2015, when residents were informed by city officials that the drinking water leaving the water treatment plant violated the SDWA due to high levels of a class of compounds called trihalomethanes (THMs).28,29 These compounds are regulated under the SDWA as total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) because they are known carcinogens, with potential health impacts over long-term exposure.30

After January 2015, the problems escalated. As early as January 9, 2015, some water samples from the University of Michigan–Flint campus revealed unsafe levels of lead.1 In February 2015, a resident of Flint, Lee Anne Walters, concerned about her children's reaction to the tap water, insisted that the city test for lead in the water in her home.1–6 Analysis of water samples from Walters's home revealed levels of lead of 104 ppb.1–6 The Lead and Copper Rule under the National Drinking Water Standards defines the “action level” for lead as 15 ppb.31,32 This rule requires water treatment systems to monitor levels of lead and copper at the customers' taps. If more than 10% of these water samples have levels of lead that exceed the 15-ppb action level, the system must implement lead treatment protocols.31,32 In spite of the results of the lead levels in water samples collected at the University of Michigan–Flint and Walters's home, the city did not take these results as an indication of a possible systemic issue with the drinking water treated at the FWSC. In February, the federal EPA asked the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) about the procedures used for the treatment of the water from Flint River. The reply from MDEQ was that the water was being treated according to regulations and that the FWSC was using an “optimized corrosion plan.”1,7

This photograph, taken in a hospital in Flint, Michigan, on October 16, 2015, shows the brown discoloration of tap water treated by the FWSC.

This photograph, taken in a hospital in Flint, Michigan, on October 16, 2015, shows the brown discoloration of tap water treated by the FWSC. Image courtesy of

With growing concerns, Walters contacted Miguel Del Toral, an EPA employee. Del Toral put Walters in touch with Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. Edwards is an expert on drinking-water systems and was the person who investigated the cause of lead in the drinking water in Washington, D.C.33,34 On hearing from Walters, Edwards launched a systematic analysis of the lead levels in homes in Flint and worked with the community to establish credible, scientific evidence of the scale of the water contamination. Along with his research group, Edwards established a website with data and information on what was unfolding in Flint.35 At the same time, Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, published a paper that demonstrated an increase in blood lead levels in children in Flint compared to children in neighboring areas that did not receive water from the FWSC.36 Further, the increase in blood lead levels was coincident with the switch to water from FWSC. After hearing about lead levels in the drinking water, Del Toral identified a grave concern—the Flint system was not using anticorrosion agents, contradicting earlier statements by the MDEQ.37 The Lead and Copper Rule states that for systems serving more than 50,000 residents, a corrosion treatment plan is required.31,32 Further, since Flint has lead service lines, a corrosion treatment plan is crucial.

Systematic analysis of water samples collected from residences in Flint. This analysis was conducted by Marc Edwards and his research group at Virginia Tech.

Systematic analysis of water samples collected from residences in Flint. This analysis was conducted by Marc Edwards and his research group at Virginia Tech. Image courtesy of  

Collecting water samples from a residence in Flint, Michigan.

Collecting water samples from a residence in Flint, Michigan. Image courtesy of

In addition to the unsafe levels of lead present in the drinking water, other evidence also pointed to concerns about the water quality delivered by the FWSC. As early as October 2014 the General Motors plant in Flint had opted out of the FWSC system because the water was corroding metal parts.38 There was also an increase in the number of legionellosis cases coincident with the switch to the FWSC.1–7,39

When the results of Edwards's studies were released, the MDEQ initially disputed them.1 The MDEQ did conduct lead assessments in homes as mandated by the SDWA, but it appears that these analyses may have been incorrectly carried out.40,41 The lead reports released by the MDEQ on July 28, 2015, and August 20, 2015, reveal that insufficient samples were collected.40 Further, the August report states that two samples were removed from the analysis, as the collections of these samples did not follow protocols.41 As a result, the MDEQ reported that the levels of lead in the samples collected did meet the requirements of the National Drinking Water Standards.

In October 2015, after state government epidemiologists confirmed Hanna-Attisha's measurements indicating increased blood lead levels in children who drank water from the FWSC, Governor Snyder of Michigan responded.1–6 On October 16, 2015, the city of Flint was reconnected to the DWSC.1–6 More than a year had passed since the switch—a switch that was intended to save money resulted in the residents of Flint paying dearly and, due to the lead poisoning of the children, potentially intergenerationally.36

On October 21, 2015, Governor Snyder appointed an independent task force to investigate the Flint water crisis. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force released its findings in March 2016.42 Among the conclusions were:

  • (i)

    recognition of the severe mismanagement of the switch of water systems by the Flint Public Works and the FWSC;

  • (ii)

    the dangers of reliance on decisions made purely on financial issues and by people without necessary expertise;

  • (iii)

    failure of the government in particular the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS);

  • (iv)

    the Governor's office as being the ultimate office of accountability and undue reliance on information from the MDEQ and MDHHS when the residents' complaints and concerns should have suggested otherwise;

  • (v)

    the failure of the U.S. EPA for not being more aggressive in exercising its authority in intervening to ensure the safety and health of the residents of Flint; and

  • (vi)

    “The Flint water crisis is a clear case of environmental injustice.”

The conclusion that this crisis was a “case of environmental injustice” has been raised by others as well43,44,45,46,47 and certainly raises the question of whether residents in a wealthier city with a different demographic would have encountered the relentless refusal by city and state officials to address what was clearly a failing water system, or whether people without the necessary expertise would have been employed to manage the city's drinking-water system. In February 2017, the Michigan Civils Rights Commission issued a report titled “The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.”48 A conclusion of this commission is that “deeply embedded institutional, systemic and historical racism” was indirectly responsible for the drinking-water crisis in Flint. The report raises larger, complex questions of what led to a city like Flint to become bankrupt in the first place, which then ultimately led to the city's “cost-saving measures” in switching the drinking-water supply.

With city and state officials ignoring them, residents of Flint had to take matters into their hands. After all, they and their families were being effectively “poisoned.” Residents like Walters and community organizations were persistent in raising awareness of what was happening. The support they received from scientists and medical professionals like Del Toral, Hanna-Attisha, and Edwards and his research group are exemplars of science in support of society. While the data on lead levels in the water and children's blood were ignored by city and state officials for too long a period, the consistent citizen pressure along with the data made the news and finally could not be ignored by officials. Absent the active citizen groups and support from the scientific and medical communities, it has to be asked how much longer the situation in Flint would have continued. Unfortunately, as concluded by the task force, even the federal agency, the EPA, failed to exercise the authority it had under the SDWA.

In January 2017, the Michigan DEQ announced that analysis of water samples collected from residences in Flint revealed that the levels of lead were below the action level.49 While this is an improvement, it was still recommended that people not drink the tap water.

A Retrospective Analysis of the Flint Water Crisis

A retrospective analysis of the decisions and actions that resulted in the contamination of the drinking water delivered to the residents of Flint clearly highlights the failures of the FWSC.7 The data analyzed in the study were gathered from monthly operating reports of the FWSC, reports from the engineering company that assessed the needs for the upgrades as well as implementing them, and water quality reports for the city of Flint. An immediate conclusion of this analysis is that the plant was not ready in April 2014 when it first began the delivery of treated water to the city. Records show insufficient amounts of chemicals essential for treating water, control meters not operational, monitors to measure residual chlorine in the water that leaves the plant that were not operational, and delays in starting chlorination, which disinfects the water.

Even as early as the 1960s it was clear that the quality of the water in the Flint River was being compromised by discharges from industries and the municipality and runoff from streets.

Even as early as the 1960s it was clear that the quality of the water in the Flint River was being compromised by discharges from industries and the municipality and runoff from streets. Image courtesy of

The appearance in May 2014 of the brown discoloration in the water should have been a cause of immediate concern. The brown color is due to iron leaching from pipes and forming iron oxide; that is, rust. This brown discoloration should have been a warning to the FWSC to check the “corrosivity” of the water. Corrosivity of water is a measure of the tendency of water to dissolve metals like iron, lead and copper. The degree of corrosivity is influenced by factors such as the pH of the water and the presence of dissolved ions such as chloride. Corrosivity is particularly dangerous when a city has lead service lines, which is the case in Flint, and when homes have lead lines and fixtures. A requirement under the Lead and Copper Rule is for treatment plants to add phosphate to the water. Phosphate serves as an “anticorrosion” agent by forming a protective film that prevents leaching of metals such as iron, lead, and copper from pipes.4,7 Treatment protocols must also include monitoring of key parameters that influence corrosivity.

The water from DWSD was treated with phosphate; the water from the Flint River was not. Since the switch to the Flint River was intended to be a temporary solution, the MDEQ advised the FWSC to not use the anticorrosion treatment at the start, but to “wait and watch” the water quality over two 6-month periods and then assess the necessity for this treatment protocol.7 The MDEQ assumed that the protective layer formed in the service lines over the years Flint received water from DWSD would not be affected and would last over the time that the Flint River was used.4,7 This is a dangerous assumption, particularly when key water quality parameters, discussed in the following, were not monitored by the FWSC.

The retrospective analysis revealed that parameters used to measure corrosivity—the chloride to sulfate mass ratio (CSMR) and the Larson–Skold index—indicated that the water from the Flint River is very corrosive and hence will leach metals from pipes. Quoting from this study:

The high values of the CSMR and Larson–Skold indexes of water entering the Flint distribution system should have raised serious concerns about the possibility of corrosion, especially given prior experience by water utilities. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, the 90th percentile lead levels in the water increased by almost 360% after a change in coagulant from alum to ferric chloride, which resulted in an increase in the CSMR by up to 170%.7

The Flint water treatment plan in fact did use ferric chloride as a coagulant (which is used in treatment of drinking water to precipitate suspended particles, such as soil). According to the retrospective analysis, the values of the CSMR and Larson–Skold indices for the Flint River were in the “serious concern” category. Further, the paper concludes:

Journalistic reports of the Flint disaster have often stated that the failure to add phosphate was the primary cause of the lead corrosion problem. However, it should be recognized that the CSMR of the treated Flint River water was so high that, even with the addition of phosphate, the water may have been so corrosive that lead levels in the system might have still exceeded the action level. The failure to recognize the corrosivity of the water and to add a corrosion inhibitor had devastating effects.7

The presence of THMs was also a result of improper monitoring of key parameters. As early as May 2014, the FWSC recorded levels of TTHMs that exceeded the maximum level permitted by the SDWA. THMs are “disinfection by-products” that form when chlorination is used to disinfect the water. THMs form when the chemicals used for chlorination react with dissolved organic compounds—through side reactions of disinfection.30 While disinfection is an essential step in treatment of drinking water, if chlorination is the method, then levels of dissolved organic matter must be monitored. If dissolved organic compounds are present, a filtration method that removes these compounds must be used before the chlorination step. Once the FWSC recognized that the levels of TTHMs were above permitted levels, filters were retroactively added to the water treatment system to lower the levels of dissolved organic compounds and prevent the production of THMs. It was only in August 2015 that this retrofitting was finally successful in lowering TTHMs levels below the regulated level.

Two key conclusions of the retrospective analysis are:7

Without any treatability studies on which to determine chemical dosages until late August 2015, it appears that plant personnel were left to attempt to address the plethora of complex water quality issues and complaints by trial and error. Significant changes were made to chemical dosages, and the reasons for these changes were often not apparent.

Since the Flint plant had not been fully operational in almost 50 years, was understaffed, and some of the staff were undertrained, it is not surprising that it was difficult to achieve effective treatment.

This retrospective study emphasizes the importance of understanding the scientific and technical complexities inherent in drinking-water treatments and in implementing and enforcing effective procedures in ensuring that the water that leaves the plant is safe. This study highlights that water management is not easy nor should it be taken for granted, and a key reason for this is the fundamental chemistry of water.

The Role of Safe Drinking Water in Social and Economic Development

The National Academy of Engineering ranked Water Supply and Distribution as fourth on a list of the top 20 engineering feats of the 20th century (electrification, the automobile, and the airplane were numbers 1, 2, and 3, respectively).50,51 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also heralds drinking water treatment as one of the 10 greatest achievements in the 20th century, as indicated in the following quote:52

In 1900, the occurrence of typhoid fever in the United States was approximately 100 cases per 100,000 people. By 1920, it had decreased to 33.8 cases per 100,000 people. In 2006, it had decreased to 0.1 cases per 100,000 people (only 353 cases) with approximately 75% occurring among international travelers. Typhoid fever decreased rapidly in cities from Baltimore to Chicago as water disinfection and treatment was instituted. This decrease in illness is credited to the implementation of drinking water disinfection and treatment, improving the quality of source water, and improvements in sanitation and hygiene.

The substantial investments in the United States in the 20th century to support infrastructure, scientific and engineering research, and establishment of agencies such as the EPA has allowed its citizens access to safe drinking water, resulting in significant social and economic benefits. According to a study by Cutler and Miller,53 introduction of filtration and chlorination in water treatment in the United States in the early 1900s accounted for a decline of total mortality rates by 43%, a decline of 62% in child mortality rates, and 74% decline in infant mortality rates. Due to the health improvements and reduction in mortality, Cutler and Miller estimate a return of investment of 23 times, demonstrating the significant positive impact of safe drinking water on human and economic development.53

Globally, significant strides have been made through the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in increasing access to safe water.54 As a result of the MDGs, about 90% of the world's population now has access to safe water sources.55 The strides made in increasing the number of people with access to safe water will positively impact communities' health and economic development, saving lives from waterborne diseases and saving time spent in collecting of water, which limits access to education and employment, particularly for women and girls, who do the bulk of the collection worldwide.

These successes, however, cannot be taken for granted.56 What residents of Flint, Hoosick Falls, Charleston, military bases, and so many others face is the reality of water being easily contaminated. A recent report by the United Nations Joint Monitoring Program found that in 42 countries, 100% of the population has access to safe water.57 The United States was not one of the 42 countries and was number 64 on the list with 0.8% of the U.S. population lacking access to safe water.57 While a small percentage, this still translates to about 2.5 million people in the United States.

Who are these 2.5 million people? Residents of Flint lack access to safe water, as do the residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, and the residents on military bases. The drinking water in some communities in the Appalachia region is contaminated as a consequence of coal mining.58,59 Approximately 30% of Navajo Nation families live without access to piped water.60 On average, a family in the Navajo Nation lives on 7 gallons of water a day. In California, the average is 362 gallons.61 For some in these communities, the groundwater is contaminated by radioactive waste left during uranium mining, and E. coli contaminates about 70% of the water used in these homes.58,61 In the Central Valley in California, the water sources in some farm communities have been contaminated by agricultural runoff.62,63,64 These communities tend to be poor, and their problem is compounded by the necessity to purchase bottled water, which is many times more expensive than tap water.63 As with the residents of Flint, these communities' hardships are also a result of environmental injustices.58 For a country to achieve universal access to safe water, policies and actions must start with the assumption that source water will have dissolved chemical compounds and microorganisms and must be protected and treated.

The tragedy is that the decision to switch water sources in Flint to save money has resulted in social and economic costs that far outweigh any up-front costs that would have been necessary to ensure the safety of the drinking water for the residents of the city. The decision to save approximately $5 million over 2 years by switching the water source to the Flint River has resulted thus far in more than $200 million to be allocated from state and federal funds to provide bottled water, filter systems, and replacement of lead service lines and home plumbing.65,66,67 And this does not even address the social impact. Peter Muennig, a professor of public health at Columbia University, estimates that the social costs to the residents of Flint due to exposure to lead could translate to about $400 million and “1,760 quality-adjusted life-years lost.”68

Reflections and Recommendations

The 1996 Amendments of the SDWA, which strengthened the original act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974, included the following:69

“Recognizing source water protection, operator training, funding for water system improvements, and public information as important components of safe drinking water.”

“States and water suppliers must conduct assessments of water sources to see where they may be vulnerable to contamination.”

“SDWA mandates that states have programs to certify water system operators and make sure that new water systems have the technical, financial, and managerial capacity to provide safe drinking water.”

These statements make it clear that the SDWA mandates monitoring and assessing the water quality of the source body of water used for human consumption, and that the people responsible for delivering safe drinking water must be qualified, trained, and certified and understand what these mandates require. Further, states must ensure that drinking-water systems have the “technical, financial, and managerial capacity” to enforce these laws. Translating these mandates into action requires that people directly involved in water management are educated to understand the fundamental chemistry of water—that the source water will require careful treatment and constant assessment to ensure that the water delivered is indeed safe.

At the same time, there are real concerns that drinking-water treatment plants, particularly those that are small, do not have the technical and financial resources necessary to ensure the safety of the water.70,71 A way to address this is for municipalities to engage with experts from academia and industry. A key conclusion from the retrospective analysis is that the Flint River water may be too corrosive to be used as a source of drinking water.7,32 The researchers who conducted the retrospective analysis are at Michigan State University—the same state as Flint. If only these experts had been consulted during the decision-making process, perhaps this crisis in Flint could have been prevented. This partnership between experts and the community played a crucial role in uncovering the causes of the catastrophe in Flint. Given the complexities of water and drinking-water management, should not partnerships between water treatment managers and experts in water management be a requirement in decision making, particularly in municipalities that are small and may not have the necessary financial resources to have “in-house” expertise? Such partnerships will go far in ensuring the quality of drinking water being delivered and safeguarding human health.

In March 2016 the Flint Water Advisory Task Force concluded that the Flint water crisis is a “clear case of environmental injustice.”

In March 2016 the Flint Water Advisory Task Force concluded that the Flint water crisis is a “clear case of environmental injustice.”

In the current political atmosphere in which our political representatives are moving away from scientifically informed policies and actions, it has become even more important for citizens to be aware of the complexities of water management. How many of us truly understand the complex scientific, technical, economic, and policy infrastructure necessary to ensure that all residents have access to safe water, or the costs when this is not the case? The more we understand these complexities, the more we can demand that our political representatives not shirk from environmental regulations and instead strengthen them to ensure the continued access to safe water that many of us take from granted.

The Flint water crisis happened under an administration well aware of the importance of enforcing and strengthening environmental regulations to safeguard human health. Under the Obama administration, the EPA launched its EJ 2014 Plan, which requires environmental justice to be the centerpiece of its work and regulations.72,73 While recognizing that it takes time for federal policies such as EJ 2014 to have real influence on actions and policies at the state and city level, the real danger we now face is the complete about-face of the current administration's approach to environmental regulation. The current EPA administration has fired scientific members of its science advisory board while increasing representation from industry,74 and has proposed a budget that will cut EPA funds by 30%, including a 50% reduction of funds for EPA's Office of Science and Technology.75

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman raised concerns about the current EPA's “actions that pose real and lasting threats to the nation's land, air, water and public health.”76 Her article raises the crucial importance of science in informing environmental policy: “Policy should always be rooted in unbiased science. People's lives and our country's resources are at stake. Mr. Pruitt should respect his duty to the agency's mission … call on his agency's scientists to educate him. No doubt they're willing and eager to impart the knowledge they've dedicated their lives to understanding.”73

The people of Flint, Hoosick Falls, Appalachia, the tribal nations, service people on military bases, and farm communities in the Central Valley have paid the price of unsafe water. There will be more situations like these unless citizens require that our political representatives understand the complexities of water management and the crucial role of science in informing environmental policy and management. We can learn from the people of El Salvador, whose government took the bold step of prizing clean water over mining and banned mining of metals to maintain water quality.77 As El Salvador recognized, the economic value of mining does not exceed the economic value of clean, safe water. It would be a huge leap forward if the United States were able to follow this example and value safe drinking water as essential for social and economic development.

* Table 1 lists acronyms and Table 2 lists names and role of key players referenced in this article.


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Bhawani Venkataraman is Associate Professor of Chemistry in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Department, Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School, New York, NY.


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