Poisoning the Children of Flint, Michigan

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Award-winning journalist Curt Guyette says the state of Michigan is responsible for the lead and toxins in the water supply that have done irreversible damage to children’s health

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

A 50 percent increase in lead levels in children’s blood has caused the mayor of Flint, Michigan, Karen Weaver, to declare a state of emergency. In April of last year in 2014, the city of Flint switched its water source from the Detroit system to Flint River. The switch has led to various levels of toxins in the water supply, including lead. The water coming out of the taps in the city is foul-smelling and badly discolored. Initially there were problems of E. coli and then high levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcigenic byproduct of chlorine that causes cancer and other diseases.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Curt Guyette. He is an award-winning journalist who has been covering Detroit for nearly 20 years. He is now working for the ACLU of Michigan and reporting on issues related to emergency management and open government. Good to have you with us again, Curt.

CURT GUYETTE: Pleasure to be here.

PERIES: So Curt, last time you were on the Real News Network we were reporting on a state of emergency over the water supply in Flint, Michigan. So what’s the difference between that emergency and this one?

GUYETTE: Well, this one was declared by the city itself, and I think the significance is, number one, you finally have city officials admitting that this is a disaster. Previously when the city was under emergency management and the previous mayor, both of whom supported the switch to the Flint River, and thereby were responsible for this disaster, now there’s a new mayor who is not responsible for it. And only concern is addressing the problem.

And the first step in addressing the problem is admitting there is a problem. And she is doing that by declaring the state of emergency. It also has the potential to better position the city to receive disaster relief from the federal government.

PERIES: Now, Curt, from what I understand, the switching from the Detroit’s water system to the Flint River was supposed to save the city somewhat, something like $5 million. We know Flint is in a cash-strapped situation, but now changing it back to Detroit’s water system is going to cost apparently over $12 million, not to mention the sick children that need to be treated and perhaps lawsuits as well. How are the officers, officials, rationalizing their decision here?

GUYETTE: That’s a, that’s a good question. I think that they will say this problem took them by surprise, that they weren’t prepared for it. But that just goes to show, if what they’re saying is true, at the very least was a lack of due diligence to ensure that the river water would be safe before doing the switchover.

PERIES: Did they not test it before they switched? I mean, you would think, you know, providing water supply for a city there’s some basic measures in place to test it before making such a drastic decision.

GUYETTE: Yes. And you know, I’m still trying to get a complete answer as to what was and wasn’t done prior to the switch. But Mark Edwards, the, who’s one of the world’s leading experts on issues like this and has been working very closely with the people of Flint, said that, you know, any sort of reasonable testing of the river water beforehand, it would have easily been predictable that this would be the consequence, because the river water is so highly corrosive. And that this is just a predictable outcome. The lead contamination is a predictable outcome of using that highly corrosive water.

And then the problem was compounded by the fact that the city and the state made a decision to stop adding corrosive control phosphates, to use phosphates to control corrosion in the pipes. And inexplicably they made the decision to stop using that. So they went from the Detroit water, which is clean, safe, not highly corrosive at all, to–but they did use corrosion control, to the Flint River water, which is multiple times more corrosive than the Detroit water. And then when they needed corrosion control more than ever, they stopped using it.

And when you’re talking about the cost, one of the major, major costs that the people of Flint are going to be facing is repairing and replacing the water delivery system infrastructure that has been terribly, terribly damaged by the use of this highly corrosive water.

PERIES: Now, how are the parents coping with this situation? I understand the neurological damage, the behavioral effects, of lead in your bloodstream is, according to the WHO, irreversible. What’s the situation there, and how are they coping with it?

GUYETTE: You know, it’s a very difficult thing to cope with. It’s devastating. Absolutely devastating to learn that your child is irreversibly impaired by water that was supposed to be safe. That your government was repeatedly telling you was safe.

So it’s, it’s devastating. But one of the things that they’re doing is participating in a, a class action lawsuit that the intent is to, to help all these people recover damages. And among those damages are the, the health effects on these families. And in the case of the children, the increased difficulty of providing education, because the lead exposure results in lowered IQs, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. And so the residents of Flint are going to be needing help paying for all those things.

PERIES: And yet it’s a cash-strapped city. So where does the responsibility for all this eventually lie?

GUYETTE: I believe it lies with the state, because it was the state that came in and took over the city. It was the state emergency manager who was in charge when the decision was made to leave the Detroit system and start using the Flint River. And it was purely an economic decision, made without, without really taking into account the health consequences that could and did result from that, from that really horribly misguided decision.

PERIES: Curt, we really appreciate the work you’re doing on behalf of the residents of Michigan, and Flint in particular. And we look forward to your continued reports with us. We do want to follow this story, because I think other cities may be faced with similar kinds of situations, and we’re not even privy to it at this time.

GUYETTE: That’s absolutely true, because one of the problems is that the way the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality conducts tests under the federal EPA’s lead and copper rule are absolutely intended to minimize the amount of lead being found. And Michigan is not the only state where that’s occurring.

And there were just hearings by the EPA which is considering changes to the rule, and one of the things that came out in that hearing was the fact that there’s, throughout the United States, 10 million lead service lines. And so unless the proper corrosion control is being used, and unless the proper detection methods are being employed, people are going to be exposed to lead. And it’s important to emphasize that there is no safe level of lead.

So if there’s any level of lead in someone’s drinking water, that’s an unsafe level, and has potential to have really severe consequences. So this isn’t just a Flint problem, this is a nationwide issue.

PERIES: And is there any quick fixes to this besides using this treatment to control the corrosion? Is replacement of all of these pipes the ultimate answer?

GUYETTE: I believe it is. But it’s a complicated issue, because first of all it’s so expensive. There are ten million of these pipes. The cost of replacing them can be $3500 each and upwards, depending how long it is. But it’s complicated by the fact that typically the municipality will own half of the pipe. The section that goes from the water main that runs down the street to the homeowner’s property line. And then the second half is from the property line to the house, is owned by the homeowner. And how you compel them to replace their half of the line is a difficult thing, especially if it’s a landlord situation, might not care, someone doesn’t want to invoke a $3500 expense, especially if it’s a property in a low-income neighborhood.

So it’s a very difficult issue. And really the answer is money. You know, lots, lots and lots. We’re talking about billions of dollars here.

PERIES: And Curt, so what is the potential damage to citizens that don’t replace their pipes inside their property line?

GUYETTE: Well, you know, one thing that Mark Edwards points out is that the biggest problem is not lead in your water, the biggest problem is lead in your water and not knowing about it. Because if you know about it and you’re in the financial position, you can filter the water. It helps if you run the water for five minutes or something to, to get the fresh water that’s not been sitting in that lead service line.

So I would say the number one thing that people should be doing is getting their water tested to see if there’s lead present in it. And then once they make that determination, excuse me, they can decide what to do in terms of addressing it. But the most important thing is to first find out.

PERIES: Curt, important work you’re doing. Thank you so much for joining us today.

GUYETTE: Thanks for having me on.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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