Earth & Conservation

The Flint Water Crisis: What You Need to Know

Get a breakdown of the important details about a huge problem that still doesn't have a good solution.

<p>Photo: Reuters </p>

There is a water crisis happening right here in America, in Flint, Mich. You've probably seen it in the headlines, but do you really know what's going on? Here's a breakdown of the most important things to know about the Flint water crisis.

What is the Flint water crisis?

Flint has been struggling with poverty for a long time. About 40% of its residents are living in poverty, according to Vox. The city was looking for a way to cut costs and one idea they came up with was to stop buying water from Detroit. In 2011, they spent $21 million buying Detroit's water, so they hoped this would be a big money-saver.

The plan was to eventually join a countywide water system that drew water from Lake Huron, but until that system was fully built, they would temporarily take water from the Flint River. This is where the trouble started. The river water corroded Flint's lead water pipes, leaking lead into the tap water. The state had failed to properly treat and test the water. Then they ignored the problem for months.

Pediatricians in Flint began reporting that the amount of lead in children's blood had spiked and the federal Environmental Protection Agency had even written a report that warned of lead contamination in the water. State officials continued to ignore the problem. They finally admitted they had a problem to deal with only after students from Virginia Tech visited Flint to test the water and found that 40% of homes had elevated lead levels.

Who is responsible for the crisis?

Throughout Flint's financial troubles, they've appointed several emergency city managers who signed off on catastrophic decisions. Emergency manager Edward Kurtz was the one who made the decision to take water from the Flint River before the switch to the new water system. Then the emergency manager after him, Darnell Earley, rejected offers from Detroit to buy water from them and continued with the plan of using the Flint River.

The state treasurer and Department of Environmental Quality both approved this plan, and the Department of Environmental Quality went against federal regulations by failing to protect the city's drinking water from lead infiltration.

It's still unclear how much information Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had about the water situation, but according to emails released from his office, his advisers were downplaying the situation in Flint. There have been over 21,000 pages of Snyder's emails released so far, which many are hoping can provide more answers.

How is it affecting residents of Flint?

Lead poisoning is the biggest and most tragic consequence of the water crisis that residents are dealing with. While lead poisoning can negatively affect adults by causing things like kidney problems, depression and fatigue, the effects are much more harmful and life-altering for children. Children with lead poisoning suffer damage to their brain and nervous system in ways that cannot be reversed. They often have developmental disorders, suffer from ADHD and have learning disabilities for the rest of their lives.

Some studies suggest the effects of lead poisoning on children are so significant that once lead was removed from paint and gasoline in the 1970's, there was a significant drop in juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy.

Why is this such an important issue?

One of the biggest problems with the Flint crisis is that it was an entirely manmade disaster. It could've been completely avoided if a handful of people hadn't made terrible decisions that caused 8,000 children to be exposed to lead.

The other major problem is that this happened in a city that is poor and majority African-American, providing yet another example of how government and institutions fail black communities.

As Hillary Clinton put it at the January 17 Democratic debate, "I'll tell you what: If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would've been action."

What will happen next?

People in Flint have been given filters to remove the lead from their tap water, but some areas of the city have so much lead in their water, it cannot be effectively removed. All lead water pipes that have been damaged by Flint River water are currently being replaced with copper ones, but the project is moving much slower than expected.

In the past month, crews have only managed to replace 14 pipes total. The original estimate of the program was $55 million but now it looks like it'll be even more costly than that, and Flint does not yet know where that money will come from.

New information is coming to light everyday, and the investigations surrounding the crisis are expected to last a very long time. On top of that, those who are suffering the effects of lead poisoning will likely be facing physical and mental health problems for the rest of their lives.

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