It’s been in mostly ignored crisis for a very long time, but today you’re likely to hear presidential candidates talking about it. From a technical aspect, some of the reporting on the waterborne lead contamination is good while some of it is lacking and some of it is plainly misrepresentative of the actual issue. What’s not being discussed in any depth – if at all – is the true, long-term costs that Michigan’s governor, Flint’s emergency manager, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s leadership imposed on Flint and the state of Michigan.
Briefly, Flint’s emergency manager (this is a Mackinaw Center kind of euphemism for “tyrant” in the classical Greek sense of the word) decided to save money by moving Flint away from purchasing finished water from Detroit. The problem was that the infrastructure to draw Lake Huron water for treatment and distribution in Flint would not be ready on the aggressive timetable that was established. So the quick and dirty solution would be to draw from the Flint River. Flint is an old industrial city. Its river would hardly be an obvious choice for drinking water, but the current news is not related to the river’s contamination. (What exposure issues may be coming from that is undetermined, and as far as I know, unexamined.) The issue is that Flint did not treat the water in a standard manner for inhibiting the corrosive potential of the water in mains. In an old water system like Flint’s, those mains and other portions of the distribution system have lead pipes, fitting, and solder. That same water is capable of corroding other metals, like copper, but again, that’s not been the most poignant issue.
The world of environmental engineering, like medicine and occupational health, has a strong code of ethics because one is required. As Flint and MDEQ showed, it’s easy to sample selectively and skew samples. Flint did both of these things in addition to telling EPA that it was adding corrosion inhibiting chemicals when it wasn’t. In effect, Flint, MDEQ and the governor of the state of Michigan covered up approximately 18 months of lead poisoning in the city of Flint. They also didn’t disclose a serious outbreak of legionella among what will probably become more issues of public health.
The corrosion of those pipes can’t be stopped by adding inhibitors now. It can’t be stopped by switching back to Detroit’s finished water. And it can’t be stopped by completing Flint’s Lake Huron intake. So there is the cost of modernizing the majority of Flint’s water infrastructure. Yet that’s not the most expensive long-term cost to be born from the recklessness and callousness shown by local and state officials.
It’s difficult to find a causative agent for crime, and realistically, there are a great many factors that contribute to crime rates. We know that poverty and education – which too often go hand-in-hand – are related to crime. There have been lots of theories, but think of how we describe crime. On the news we hear about crime “waves” and “epidemics.” Karl Smith is quoted by Kevin Drum in an important Mother Jones article on environmental lead poisoning:
“A good rule of thumb – I believe – for epidemics economic, biological or social is this: If it spreads along lines of communication its entropic information. If it travels along major transportation routes its microbial. If it spreads out like a fan, its an arthropod. If its everywhere, all at once, its a molecule.”
I spend my life dealing with lead, cadmium, mercury, asbestos and the innumerable ways that the modern world is trying to kill us. I’m knee deep in the banality of evil. But when I read about Flint’s water poisoning, I hear a much different story than – probably – most others. I’ve read Drum’s piece multiple times and I keep a desktop folder that currently has seven-plus scientific studies on lead, particularly in children and to a lesser extent correlating early lead exposure to crime. I’m intimately familiar with federal and state regulations, along with exposure pathways, sampling for airborne lead exposure (less so with water), and interpreting that data. With all that, I’m not willing to say that lead causes crime regardless of how well the studies correlate. And they do correlate, right down to small population levels like cities as well as across states and even different nations. It may be too easy to assign a single factor to a complex issue like crime, particularly violent crime.
But we know what lead does. Even if OSHA’s worker exposure limit is probably out of date and based on 40 hour exposure of an average sized adult male, we know that lead is dangerous. In my professional world, we refuse to use OSHA exposure limits in residential settings because the epidemiology of residential exposure and especially childhood exposure make those numbers less than helpful and perhaps dangerous. Lead impairs cognitive function, significantly. It has that potential for acute and chronic exposure in adults. The potential is more significant for developing brains. There’s a strong body of evidence that it leads to reduction of impulse control and a handful of other issues.
Water is the second best exposure pathway for lead to enter the blood stream, and that’s only because unless one eats lead paint chips or the paint “chalks,” inhalation exposure is generally related to removing the paint which breaks into pieces small enough to be respirable (i.e. capable of being transported into the bronchial passageways and aveoli). A great many children in Flint will now have to find a way to overcome poverty, poor educational resources, AND a molecular handicap because a handful of political actors wanted to make waves and weren’t human enough to admit a mistake when it might have been fixed.
There are studies suggesting that a small decrease in childhood lead exposure produces the same cognitive/education difference as a large (greater than 20%) equaling of economic inequality. That’s what’s at stake for the families of Flint. That’s what was ignored, covered up, and fought until it couldn’t be brushed aside anymore. How much will that cost in 10, 15, 20 years? And that cost was incurred to not even “save” a significant amount of money after the full cost of building a Lake Huron inlet is considered. That is the real, socialized cost of the emergency manager’s water department being able to show that it didn’t spent $100/day (estimated) on the corrosion inhibitor that it told the EPA it was using.