Flint, Michigan Reconsiders Giving Babies Iron-Filled Bleach Water

I’m very defensive of Flint, Mich., as it’s my husband’s hometown, and, like my beloved Detroit, I feel it gets a bad rep. It is the home of Perani’s Hockey World, birthplace of General Motors, and the reason I have seen Semi-Pro dozens of times. (Also, because Love Me Sexy.)

But Flint is not without its problems. When the auto industry left the city, a gaping hole emerged in its economy. Perhaps you have seen Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s attempt to hold General Motors CEO Roger Smith accountable for the decimation of Flint’s workforce.

Despite trying to replace the car factories with other small manufacturers, Flint slipped deeper into debt and required an Emergency Manager to be appointed. One of the mounting expenses for the city and its residents was the water bill. For some residents it rose to over $100 a month.

“We have residents choosing between water and groceries and other bills,” said Bethany Hazard, whose own bill is about $100 a month for a single person.

The solution was to switch from their expensive Detroit water provider to a nearby company, the Karegnondi Water Authority, which pulls water from Lake Huron. Except that facility won’t come online until 2016, so to hold them over, they’re piping water from the Flint River. Therein lies the problem.

The Flint River is notorious for containing decades-worth of factory runoff. Flint River water is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron’s. And corrosive river water improperly filtered, as Flint’s is, will strip everything it touches of iron and other debris as it moves through the pipes. It’s so dangerous, GM’s Flint Engine Operations won’t even use it in the plant. They’re bypassing the city supply for a nearby township’s water.

BOLD CLAIM: When GM won’t use water to make a car, humans probably shouldn’t drink it.

In the fall of 2014, six months after the switch, Flint underwent three boil advisories for coliform bacteria in the water. To get rid of the bacteria, disinfectants were used, but by January the water system was full of Total Trihalomethane, a byproduct of the disinfectants. TTHM can cause plenty of health complications over time, not least of which is cancer. It’s not recommended to expose yourself to it longterm, and young children and the elderly had to resort to bottled water.

Residents began to protest their persistent, bleach-smelling, dirty brown water. Kids and pets were breaking out in rashes. It seemed unhealthy despite what the Health Department was claiming were acceptable levels of TTHM. Everyone was assured the rust color was from a totally normal amount of iron in their pipes.

As of September 2015, no one, not even Erin Brockovich, was buying the “Oh, maybe you just got rusty pipes then, eh?” story.

Testing of Flint children before the water switch and after showed they have nearly six times the amount of lead in their blood than kids in surrounding counties. Just in case you forgot, lead poisoning causes irreversible brain damage. The researchers at Virginia Tech who discovered the lead levels advised families in specific zip codes to stop drinking their tap water immediately.

Governor Rick Snyder and the Department of Health completely refuted the study and insisted the water was safe to drink. Despite the assertion that the water “technically passed” lead level tests, local medical associations warned everyone to avoid it, and begged for the city to reconnect with their original Detroit supply until the new Lake Huron facility is finished.

Flint’s mayor and Congressional representatives kept pushing for more help, and a year and a half after the switch, the governor and the state health department changed their tune when they realized they were being branded as child murderers. Starting today, bottled water and extra lead filters will be available to residents, provided by the Michigan Department of Health Human Services and the Genesee County Community Action Resource Department. A new team of experts will begin retesting the water, and the city will try and find a solution that doesn’t include the Flint River.

If you’d like to help, you can donate to the Eastern Michigan Food Bank or the Flint Diaper Bank, which are both providing bottled water for homes with infants. One of the Virginia Tech students who discovered the lead problem, Anurag Mantha, has started a GoFundMe account to try and raise money for more lead filters.