Flint, Mich. is in the heart of the so-called Rust Belt, a swath of once-thriving U.S. industry towns that are now rife with poverty, shuttered factories and degrading infrastructure. Flint was already known as one of the poorest cities in America and one of the country’s most dangerous, but now it’s got another dubious honour: it’s the city that poisoned its residents with lead.
It happened after the state government switched Flint from using the Detroit water system in April 2014 to drawing its water from the Flint River, in an effort to save money while a new supply line from Lake Huron is constructed.
The city didn’t treat the water with anti-corrosion agents that might have prevented the aged pipes from leaching lead — from the solder that binds the copper and iron pipes together — into the water system. And even though the city switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015, it was too late.
So, how much lead got into the water?
According to Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, a sample of the water in one Flint home “showed the worst example of lead and water contamination we’ve encountered in 25 years.”
Edwards and the Virginia Tech team conducted tests on 270 homes and found water so contaminated with lead that even the Environmental Protection Agency would deem it “toxic waste.’
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Why wasn’t the water treated for this?
According to CNN, it would have cost as little as $100 a day to add the anti-corrosion agent, which is required by federal law.
Even three years before switching off the tap from the Detroit water system, a study found the water would need to be treated with the anti-corrosion agent because the high salt content in the river’s water — thanks to road salt used on icy roads in winter — mixed with the chloride to make the water drinkable. Without the anti-corrosion agent, the chloride eats away at the pipes and lead particles seep into the water.
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Had that anti-corrosion agent been added to the water, it may have alleviated 90 per cent of the problem, CNN reported.
If the fact the government opted to pay an extra $100 a day to treat the water with an anti-corrosion agent wasn’t anger inducing, residents are still reportedly paying between $100-200 a month for water they can’t drink.
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Wait, road salt was part of the problem?
Yes, according to Virginia Tech’s Edwards.
“In U.S. cities where ice is a problem in winter, the average road salt use per person per year is 135 pounds,” the Guardian reported him saying. “It’s incredible. In many northeastern cities because of road salt use, salt content in rivers has doubled in the last 20 years.”
So when the switch to taking water from the Flint River was made, more corrosive water began flowing through the pipes.
“[T]he Larson Iron Corrosion Index was raised from 0.54 (low corrosion) to 2.3 (very high corrosion) and the chloride to sulfate mass ratio (CSMR) index for lead corrosion increased from 0.45 (low corrosion) to 1.6 (very high corrosion),” the Flint Water Study, the Virginia Tech research team led by Edwards, found.
It’s the chloride in the road salt that is corrosive and mixing it with chlorine to treat the water —which is supposed to protect people from pathogens and microorganisms and make water safe to drink — only makes it more corrosive. The Flint Water Study notes the water in the Flint River “has about [eight] times more chloride in it than Detroit water” — which is treated with an anti-corrosion agent.
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What are the effects of lead poisoning?
There are now plans to treat , in the city of 99,000, for lead exposure because of the water they drank. It’s a big concern because, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns, “no safe blood level as many as 27,000 children in children has been identified.” Symptoms of lead poisoning don’t always present physically, leaving them to go untreated.
Lead poisoning symptoms in children, according to the Mayo Clinic can show themselves over the long term, in developmental delays and learning difficulties. Irritability, loss of appetite, fatigue and hearing loss are other symptoms that may not be immediately visible. Some children may suffer symptoms such as constipation or vomiting.
The Mayo Clinic notes a number of symptoms adults can suffer if they are exposed to lead. Those include high blood pressure, memory loss, mood disorders, miscarriage or premature birth and pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities, among others.
The CDC also notes children who are poor or members of racial-ethnic minority groups are among those at “higher risk for lead exposure”
In Flint, 56.6 per cent of the population is “black or African American” and 41.5 per cent of people live below the poverty level.
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