Saginaw Street, paved with 116-year-old bricks and lined with restaurants, runs through the heart of downtown Flint, Mich. Around the corner you’ll find a farmers market, a row of museums, a craft brewery, and three campuses: the University of Michigan at Flint, Kettering University (formerly known as General Motors Institute), and the highly rated Mott Community College. In many ways, Flint fits right in with other quaint and trendy towns in America.
But while parts of the city are experiencing a renaissance, 40 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line. And although the murder rate dropped nearly in half between 2013 and 2014, there were still 48 homicides in 2015 (in a city of fewer than 100,000 people). Then, two years ago, news broke that lead was leaching into the city’s water.
At a packed meeting in March, the Rotary Club of Flint honored Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at the nearby Hurley Medical Center, and fellow club member Larry Reynolds, president and CEO of Mott Children’s Health Center. The two pediatricians were instrumental in pushing the city and state governments to admit that the lead problem was real and then in leading the cleanup efforts. Hanna-Attisha, says Amy Krug, 2015-16 president of the Rotary Club of Flint, “has become the living symbol of advocacy for our children with her willingness to step forward and speak up.”
If it hadn’t been for the work of such activists, it’s possible the lead story would never have come to light. As for the Flint club, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, an organization that has been working to better the city for generations has even more to do.
In 2013, Flint officials, under a state-appointed emergency manager, decided to change the city’s water service provider. For 50 years, its water had come from Detroit’s source, nearby Lake Huron. The water was treated in Detroit and then piped into Flint homes. With the change, which took effect in April 2014, the water would be pulled from the Flint River and go through a local treatment plant. The reasons behind this decision differ depending on whom you ask, though the most common answer is that it was a cost-saving measure.
For a long time, the river had been terribly polluted, partly because of a history of industrial dumping, but in recent years a series of cleanup efforts had made progress. The river still isn’t pristine, but according to Laura Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering and one of the first residents to sound the alarm on the water crisis, “it’s as good as any river through a city could be.”
The problem doesn’t stem from pollutants in the river, but rather from decisions about how the river water would be treated. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating who made those decisions and why. But the upshot was that before sending the water to residents, the plant did not do two things that are standard practice in water treatment: using activated charcoal to filter the water and adding phosphates to it. Omitting those two key steps precipitated a cascade of effects on the city’s aging water distribution system.
River water is different from lake water. Lakes sit quietly and rarely change. Their water temperature and composition are consistent and predictable. It’s easy to treat water from lakes, because you know roughly what’s going to be in it. But rivers flow, and along the way all kinds of contaminants can enter. “The concentration of any contaminant changes all the time,” says Sullivan.
A river is constantly picking up organic material – leaves, branches, grass, and anything else that blows in. Traditionally, activated charcoal is used to filter out those bits and pieces. The Flint treatment plant skipped that step, simply adding chlorine and sending the water on its way. But when organic material comes into contact with chlorine, it attracts the chlorine and binds to it, creating a chemical reaction that produces carcinogens. These toxic byproducts, known as trihalomethanes, are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They pose a health concern all on their own. But to make matters worse, because the chlorine is bound to the organic material, it isn’t free to do its job of killing bacteria all the way to residents’ faucets.
Phosphates, meanwhile, are essential for creating an oxide layer, called scale, that builds up inside lead pipes and forms a barrier between the water and the metal of the pipe. (People with hard water are familiar with scale, that chalky white buildup on faucets and fixtures.) Without the regular addition of phosphates to the water, the scale inside the lead pipes will dissolve, exposing the inside of the pipe itself to the water passing through it.
While it seemed obvious to residents that something had gone wrong with the water, it was almost a year before city and state officials responded – despite reports of smelly, discolored water, skin rashes, and hair loss. Eventually, everyone acknowledged what many had long believed: Residents who had lead pipes were being exposed in a very dangerous way.
After news of Flint’s problem hit the media, USA Today combed through EPA data and found that “nearly 20 percent of the water systems nationally [tested] above the agency’s ‘action level’ of 15 parts per billion.” That means, according to the report, that almost 2,000 municipalities around the country have had elevated lead levels in their tap water since 2012.
“We’re the canary in the coal mine,” says Dawn Hibbard, a communications specialist at Mott Community College and a member of the Rotary Club of Flint.
The health effects of lead contamination are debilitating and not always immediately obvious. Lead attacks the developing brain. In the worst cases, the element can cause coma, mental retardation, and even death. Even at lower levels, exposure can result in behavioral problems by lowering IQ, increasing antisocial behavior, and decreasing a child’s ability to retain knowledge or perform in educational environments.
“So you have a certain development challenge, and then it becomes more obvious,” says Reynolds. “A child can’t learn their ABCs, can’t count, can’t sit in class and learn. And then as they get older, we see things like behavior problems, not being able to master life skills. This is why exposure to lead can cause such a problem and can cause health care providers, especially child health care providers, to go on the offensive.”
What is particularly nefarious is that many of these problems won’t become obvious until these children reach their teenage years. And there will be no way to know if a child’s behavioral problems stem from exposure to lead at a young age. The results of lead poisoning can’t be reversed, so health workers will have to follow the children who have ingested lead at least until they turn 18 to try to mitigate the learning disabilities that result from lead poisoning.
The city has yet to identify all of the lead pipes in its system, according to Marty Kaufman, a professor in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Environment at the University of Michigan at Flint. The city’s pipe maps, he says, were last updated in 1984. Kaufman and his team combed through more than 500 3-by-5 cards, written in pencil and often no longer legible, that had been scanned into the city’s computer system. They then stitched together 240 image files to come up with a still-incomplete look at Flint’s underground maze of water pipes.
Kaufman identified about 4,500 lead pipes in the city, but he estimates that at least 4,000 more are not accounted for. They will have to locate century-old construction contracts to know for sure, he says.
So far, the state has funded the removal of about 30 pipes.
For so many years, the city deferred maintenance. There was a long-term disinvestment in the city’s inner core,” says Krug, who is managing director of Ele’s Place, a nonprofit that supports grieving children and teens. “The lead issue is just one piece of the puzzle. Folks have felt disenfranchised for a long time. A lot of people were screaming loudly for a long time. So when they started screaming about the lead issue, people were already busy not listening.”
Now local activists have taken on the massive cleanup effort. Rotary and other local organizations – including United Way of Genesee County, which is headed by Flint Rotarian Jamie Gaskin – are taking donations, giving grants to services that will support those most in need, ensuring accountability, and generally helping their neighbors.
In September 2015, Gaskin stood with Hanna-Attisha and other professionals who were part of the health coalition to release the blood lead level data to the community.
“We immediately started doing crisis response work,” he says. “The morning of the press conference, we were buying trucks of water to coordinate with the diaper distribution system that already existed in the community. As soon as we saw the data, we realized that we had an obligation to begin to identify the most vulnerable populations and prioritize ensuring safe, clean drinking water in those communities.”
Krug calls the collective impact amazing to see. “As many failures as there were,” she says, “there were also that many heroes.”
Donations have come from other Rotary clubs, including in Dexter, Mich., which had its own disaster in 2012 when a tornado ripped through town, and Nashville, Tenn., whose president traveled to Flint to present the funds in person.
“Rotary represents a group of thoughtful folks who already understood water in a lot of different ways,” Gaskin says, although he notes that until the crisis hit Flint, the members of his club had always talked about water issues happening somewhere else, never in their own community. “As the data revealed the severity of the problem, I think the Rotarians in particular, in churches and in civic organizations, in their professional roles, began to encourage all of those institutions to respond.”
Flint has a long history of overcoming depression and disaster with community activism. In 1936, the United Auto Workers there staged the first successful sit-down strike against General Motors, sparking the growth of unions throughout the United States. In 1953, Flint bounced back after one of the country’s deadliest tornadoes. And, like many cities in the Rust Belt, Flint has been fighting its way back from deindustrialization and the loss of big employers like General Motors. In 2002, voters recalled a mayor after the city found itself $30 million in debt. And over the last 12 years, the city has been tearing down abandoned homes, turning former factory land into parks, and refurbishing art deco buildings.
“Flint is the biggest small town,” says Hibbard. “General Motors was born here. In the 1950s, we had the highest per capita income in the country. It was the inability of leadership to adjust to change that got us here.”
Rotary club member Bobby Mukkamala, an otolaryngologist, is on the board of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which has been managing many of the city’s incoming donations. “The people are going to help ourselves out of this. We are receiving a lot of outside help,” he says. “It was wonderful to have that support, but I knew the people would rally together and not have a ‘woe is me’ mentality. This is just one more thing. It’s not going to be the death knell. In fact, it’s an opportunity to garner support and bring people out who want us to succeed.”
Flint, says Gaskin, is still not well-understood. “I believe that when people see a crisis, they want to understand a simple answer to resolve the crisis,” he says. “The situation in Flint is extremely complicated. Some people will say, ‘Oh, just fix the pipes,’ or ‘Oh, just change the water source.’ No, no, this is about a complete redesign of an aging urban city that went through the boom and the bust. It’s about how we reinvent cities that are inclusive of all people, that allow people to have a voice in their community, to not be marginalized.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be defined by this problem,” he continues. “If you come to Flint, we’ll show you so much beauty, so much culture, so much rich heritage.”
At dinner with a group of Rotarians at the trendy Cork on Saginaw restaurant (partly owned by Mukkamala), there’s the same feeling of resolve and determination. When asked why they still live in Flint, everyone agrees it’s because there’s opportunity here. And because they love their city.
“We want people’s help, but we don’t want their pity,” says Krug. “We’re going to get through this.”
Interested in water issues? Learn more at at www.rotary.org/water.