Undrinkable: Flint’s Water Crisis

By: Ashley Paredes ’25

     Residents of Flint, Michigan have been left with unsafe water since 2014. After years of arguments, there is still no clear solution.

     In 2014, Flint nearly went bankrupt. To save money, city officials switched Flint’s water source from the city of Detroit to a pipeline connected to Lake Huron. While this pipeline was being built, residents got their water from the Flint River; the water was transferred through a decades-old water plant that had not been used—or well-funded—in years, causing unsafe drinking water.

     Matt McFarland, a foreman at the plant, expressed his concerns about its potential danger to Flint residents, but he was ignored, and the plant opened anyway..

     Another contributor to the unclean water was that the Flint River was never treated with the proper chemicals. Without these chemicals, the water corroded the city’s pipes, releasing toxic metals into the water and giving it a yellow-ish brown color straight out of the faucet.

     Flint residents began unexplainedly breaking out in rashes, and all the while, the city insisted there was nothing wrong with the water.     But despite the city’s denial, the water was infiltrated with lead, a neurotoxin without any known treatment. Lead not only does irreversible damage to the brain, but it also causes anemia, weakness, and kidney damage, according to the CDC.

     Dr. Mona Hannah Atisha, a pediatrician in Flint, wanted to expose the dangerously high amounts of lead in the city’s water. She tested children’s blood three years before the water switch and then again after.. The difference between the amount of lead in their blood was astonishing.

     “Physicians need to be trained to see symptoms of the larger structural problems that will bedevil a child’s health and well-being more than a simple cold ever could. But these problems are harder for even a well-trained physician to identify,” Atisha said.

     Three years after the crisis began, the number of third graders in Flint who passed Michigan’s standardized literacy test dropped from 41 to 10 percent. This steep decline indicates that the water will have lasting effects on these children’s brains for the rest of their lives.

In June of 2014, residents started being diagnosed with Legionnaire’s disease, which is caught by inhaling water droplets infected with bacteria.

The disease is preventable if the water in the bacteria is controlled.

     The CDC wanted to launch an investigation and test the water after 47 cases of Legionnaire’s, but state officials prevented them from doing so.

     “It’s likely that the Legionnaire’s outbreak was bigger than that reported by official authorities,” Zachary Binney, epidemiologist at Emory University, said.

     The outbreak was never publicly announced until Rick Snyder, former governor of Michigan, announced it in 2016. Officials said they couldn’t conclude that the water was the source of the outbreak.

     Further, death tolls of pneumonia began to spike after the water switch, especially in 2016. Scientists were prevented from investigating the water.

     “We were stopped because they didn’t want to know the truth – the government, they didn’t want us to find Legionella. They didn’t want us to find bacteria. They didn’t want us to test samples,” Shawn McElmurry, an environmental engineer, said. “They didn’t want us to collect from filters in homes because they didn’t want them to show that the water was the actual source of the Legionella.”

     After months of trying to put an investigation together, Frontline researched into the pneumonia deaths, and state officials and independent scientists’ answers differed. The state health department found that the 115 pneumonia deaths in Flint were due to influenza, but independent scientists said some of them could be attributed to Legionnaire’s.

     On Jan. 14, 2021, nine individuals were indicted on a total of 41 counts involved with the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Former governor Rick Snyder and former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief Nick Lyon were among those prosecuted.

     However, these charges were soon dropped on Oct. 4, 2022, by Genessee Circuit Judge Elizabeth Kelly. The 2021 trial done by Judge David Newblatt was done without preliminary examination of the witnesses. A judge cannot act as a one-man jury.

     This does not mean that they cannot reopen the case. Because the charges were dismissed without prejudice, state prosecutors can file charges again if they would like.

     In 2022, Flint residents still line up for water bottles after eight years. As the city works to fix the pipelines and give residents access to clean water, hopefully the residents of Flint receive justice.

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