Among public health crises in the United States, one of the most publicized and criticized human-made events in recent memory is the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. The crisis was responsible for the deaths of at least 12 people — with many more reporting they fell ill after consuming contaminated water. In total, tens of thousands of Flint residents were exposed to water with dangerously high levels of lead.
The Flint water crisis is a harrowing example of a breakdown in the proper functioning of state and local government that put its citizens directly in harm’s way. However, it’s also a good example of public health professionals in action. Through the efforts of public health experts and the constant pressure applied by organizations and government entities like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Flint is nearing the end of a crisis that started almost a decade ago.
The following will break down what happened in Flint, Michigan, along with the public health field’s response and where the situation stands today.
An Eight-Year Water Crisis: What Happened in Flint, Michigan?
Some of the origins of the Flint water crisis can be traced to the closure of several General Motors automobile manufacturing plants in the city in the 1980s and 1990s. The city suffered an economic downturn, which eventually led to Governor John Engler declaring a state of financial emergency in Flint in 2002.
Flint’s financial instability persisted into the next decade, and, in 2011, Governor Rick Snyder appointed the first of a series of emergency managers to run the city. Notably, these emergency managers were not formally elected, and they reported to the state treasury department rather than the citizens of Flint.
In a cost-saving measure, the decision was made to switch the source of the city’s water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River. This singular decision caused a public health crisis unlike anything Flint had ever experienced.
The Beginning of the Flint Water Crisis
The Flint water crisis began on April 25, 2014, when the city officially switched the source of its water from DWSD to the Flint River. Almost immediately, citizens of Flint began registering complaints about the water’s color, taste and odor. Additionally, the remaining General Motors plant went public with the news that using the water from the Flint River was causing their new engine parts to corrode.
Despite complaints from citizens and businesses alike, state officials insisted that the water was safe to drink. These assurances from the government continued, even after evidence surfaced that proved Flint water was contaminated. The Flint water crisis was both a public health crisis and a public relations nightmare for the Michigan government.
Denial of the Flint Water Crisis
Using the Flint River to source the city’s water supply was the first of many mistakes made by the state’s government officials. Rather than remedy the error, state officials continued to insist that the water was safe for human consumption and use — even though citizens were complaining about rashes and hair loss after showering in the water.
A spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria, in Flint residents prompted Genesee County health officials to investigate the city’s water supply as the cause. However, this investigation was met with pushback at the city and state levels.
In January 2015, the city of Flint informed residents that they had detected higher-than-normal levels of carcinogenic trihalomethanes yet insisted the water was still safe to drink. Within the same month, dangerously high levels of lead were detected in water fountains at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offered to reconnect the city of Flint to its water supply; however, the emergency manager — still prioritizing cost-saving measures — declined. Ultimately, this decision would go on to cost the city millions of dollars and put the short- and long-term health of the entire community at great risk.
Uncovering the Contamination Source of the Flint Water Crisis
Nearly a year after the city switched to the Flint River for its water supply, hard evidence was brought to light about the integrity of that water supply. In March 2015, a test of the drinking water revealed concentrations of lead more than 25 times higher than what the EPA deemed actionable. It’s worth noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has gone on record to say that there is no safe level of lead exposure — any amount of exposure is dangerous.
Additional tests of Flint’s drinking water found it to be so contaminated that it technically qualified as hazardous waste. Flint’s city council voted to return Flint to its original water supplier only to be thwarted by the emergency manager under the grounds that it was “incomprehensible.” In yet another governmental misstep, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality claimed that no steps were necessary to mitigate the levels of copper and lead in Flint’s water supply coming from the river.
In July 2015, a three-month spike in lead levels was identified by the state health department; however, this was later deemed a seasonal anomaly. Months later in September, a professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech determined that lead was being leached from old pipes, which prompted Flint doctors to advise residents to avoid drinking the water. It was confirmed via blood tests that several children in the area had high levels of lead in their systems.
On October 1, 2015, Genesee County declared a state of emergency and urged residents to avoid consuming the water. The governor’s office contradicted this message through press releases claiming the water was safe to drink. However, evidence of unsafe water continued to mount, and Governor Snyder decided to switch the water supply back to DWSD.
Experts deemed this move by Snyder as “too little, too late.” The damage had already been done: Flint’s residents and water supply infrastructure had been exposed to corrosive water for the better part of 18 months.
The public health crisis was finally getting some real attention. At the end of October 2015, Governor Snyder announced that an independent task force would investigate all the events that led up to the crisis. Their initial findings placed the blame on Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
In January 2016, a state of emergency was declared for Genesee County by the newly elected mayor, garnering the attention of President Barack Obama and the National Guard. The federal government released $5 million in federal funds to help with relief, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) became involved to coordinate a local and state response.
Does Flint Have Clean Water Today?
Interest in the Flint water crisis continues today, with many wondering if Flint has clean water now.
Flint has clean water, but the relationship that Flint residents have with the water is complex. After being told for over a year that contaminated water was safe for consumption, Flint residents have developed a deep mistrust of both their water supply and their local government. Further stoking those feelings of mistrust are the many state and local officials involved in the crisis who are being indicted on charges such as obstruction of justice and involuntary manslaughter. From a legal standpoint, much remains to be settled.
However, there are some bright spots. As of January 2022, Flint officially marked its sixth year in a row of being in compliance with water standards as they pertain to the federal Lead and Copper Rule, a public health measure developed by the EPA to improve lead sampling. As of September 2022, the Michigan government announced that it was in its final phase of replacing old lead service lines with modern infrastructure. The city of Flint and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy reports that 95% of the old infrastructure has been updated.
Other notable expenditures on upgrades include $5 million for a chemical feed building that will monitor and treat the plant’s water supply, $22 million for water main replacements and $11 million for new water meters. A significant amount of money is being spent to rectify the Flint water crisis, a somewhat ironic outcome considering the crisis started when an emergency manager switched the water supply as a cost-saving measure.
Although the infrastructure issues are nearly resolved, the public health effects of the Flint water crisis and the mistrust residents have toward their local and state governments will remain for some time. According to reporting from Great Lakes Now, a $641 million deal is on the table to settle the claims residents have against the state of Michigan. However, Flint residents are expected to reject the offer, considering how small the settlement amount is relative to the number of victims and the damage the crisis caused.
Flint Water Crisis Response Programs
According to the Genesee County government website, numerous crisis response programs are currently available to residents. The main ones include:
- The Flint Registry: A project that connects people to programs and services that promote health and wellness
- Flint ReCAST: A youth engagement program that promotes community resiliency after stress and trauma
- Genesee CHAP: A community health access program that works to remove health care barriers associated with social determinants of health
Other community resources can be found on the Michigan.gov site.
Become an Agent of Positive Change in the Public Health Sector
Public health workers, like the individuals who work for the EPA, monitor the health status of citizens, diagnose public health issues and keep the public informed on ways to remain safe in the face of public health threats like the Flint water crisis. They also coordinate with local governments and organizations to devise solutions for overcoming public health threats.
Public health workers also handle issues related to communicable diseases and many other potential threats that may harm human health. Individuals interested in getting involved are encouraged to invest in their education. The Master of Public Health online program of the Keck School of Medicine of USC explores the world of public health and features concentrations such as community health promotion, global health and biostatistics and epidemiology.
Pursue a career in public health and be part of the solution for tomorrow’s public health issues with the Keck School of Medicine.