University of Sourthern California


What We Can Learn From The Flint Lead Crisis

Any decisions made regarding the distribution of natural resources have a ripple effect on public health. In 2013, the water supply in Flint, MI was switched from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. This economically-driven decision was supposed to save the county and state money during a two years’ water system integration period, but ended up costing the city tens of millions more.  How can we recognize and ethically handle public health concerns before they become crises, as highlighted by this recent worst-case example from Flint?

Economics Can be Deceiving

Michigan’s State Emergency Manager ignored the protests of the Flint City Council that the river water (known to be extremely polluted) would be difficult if not impossible to effectively treat. Due once more to financial reasons, the water was not appropriately treated, corroding the city’s lead-containing pipes. Children and adults began falling ill with lead poisoning. Rather than springing to action, state administration pointed fingers at local officials, allowing the crisis to exacerbate and become even costlier.

Not every economically expedient decision is economically sound. Although switching Flint’s water supply to the river was supposed to save the city approximately $5 million over the course of two years, the costs of the water crisis created by this decision are estimated currently at $55 million and expected to climb as high as $1.5 billion, not even including the longstanding health and psychological effects on Flint residents.

The Era of Isolation is Over

We are no longer living in a small-town farming culture; our infrastructures and industries grow increasingly urban and interdependent, and can no longer afford the mentality that the world is an endless trashcan, on any governing or administrative level. Sheila Suess Kenned, law and public policy professor at Purdue University, sums it up perfectly, saying “America is no longer a country of four million farmers and small merchants scattered along the eastern seacoast. The overwhelming majority of Americans no longer grow and preserve our own food or draw our water from a pristine nearby creek. Cars and factories discharge pollutants into our air, airplanes crisscross the skies, and we live in densely populated cities where—among other things—we can’t just toss our garbage out the back door.”

Pay Attention to Unintended Consequences

Providing safe drinking water necessitates a critical balancing act. Even a small change in supply can cause cascading effects on an entire treatment and delivery system, so decisions must be made in tandem with exhaustive research and advocacy. A water system’s overarching job is not to simply meet compliance, but to distribute truly safe drinking water and thereby protect public health. Baseline adherence to regulations should be considered a minimum, C- grade level of satisfactory performance, and by no means a stopping point. Thinking holistically about logical potentialities will help prevent unintended consequences such as widespread lead poisoning. The EPA’s Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual’s policy statements and clarifications on intent are a good starting point.

Smart Management is Top Priority

As water usage falls, pollution increases, and storms become more extreme—all a result of climate change—cities are getting smarter about managing their drinking, rain and waste waters as fully integrated systems. This has become imperative to not only continue delivering safe drinking water, but to combat these increasingly challenging issues, especially pollution. Without an increasingly big-picture view of systems that affect entire populations, the end result can only be loss.