Talking Drum

Flint water crisis: Throwing our lives down the drain


Flint water bottle

Water – The elixir of life. It is the ever-present element to which all living beings find themselves inextricably bound. As human beings, our dependency on its life-giving qualities far outstrip even our need for food. Our reliance on it for our bodily sustenance, as well as in the many other functions it serves in our daily lives, for cooking, bathing, washing clothes, cleaning, irrigating our crops, etc., makes water an invaluable resource.

So, the obvious ill effects of polluting drinking water, might seem like a common sense thing to most thinking people. However, from what we can observe of the travesty unfolding in Flint, Michigan currently getting major news coverage, this obvious reality seems to be lost on the modern industrial entities. What is further alarming, and should perhaps be the bigger “story”, is how widespread such cases of mass poisoning, just by way of our drinking water, actually are.

Despite the, perhaps justified, outrage expressed by Flint residents decrying the recklessness of the state’s Governor specifically, for creating the conditions which resulted in lead poisoning by drinking water, it may be useful to present some broader considerations. How does a city’s local water source become so polluted that it can not support the life of its residents? If the water in the local environment is so polluted as to render it unsafe, what implications does that have on other environmental elements, like the air and soil?  How many of these pollutants are we all exposed to from all of these factors in this industrial society? If these factors have such adverse effects on human life, what of the countless other living things within the ecosystem?

We will attempt to briefly address some of those considerations here. The Flint river, a major body of water that could perhaps be considered the obvious source of water for the city’s residents, hasn’t been used as such in decades. Consequently, the city’s water source was changed to divert water from Lake Huron by way of Detroit’s water system. Why this was originally done may stem from what ironically is being blamed as the poison in the drinking water today; lead. Lead poisoning has been at the center of all the outrage coming from the city’s residents. During the 1930s to 1980s, Flint was a city in which car manufacturing was its mainstay economic industry. In fact, much of the city’s development and employment was attributed to factories, battery plants and other offshoots of the booming auto industry, particularly GM (General Motors), to which Flint was home. Consequently, as with most industrial factories then and now, the chemical waste that was produced from the various industries, was highly toxic and of course found its way into the Flint River. During that era, the key material in manufacturing everything from paint, to cars, and car fuel, as a specialization in GM’s effort to maximize its market share, was lead.

There are environmental laws, listed in the Toxic Substances Control Act and enforced by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), that were meant to ensure that such poisonous substances don’t make it into the ground water, rivers, air, soil etc. or at least in environmentally “negligible” amounts, should this occur. This act was instituted with the protection of human lives as it’s ultimate goal. However, there seems to be some very serious misunderstanding as to what exactly is “negligible” and how that should be determined relative to the fragility of life. Many of the laws as listed, only came into being as a reaction to some gravely adverse health conditions, brought on by what the corresponding industry has hailed as a “breakthrough discovery” or even as a “Gift of God” according to one GM representative. Lead, was one such substance but let’s not forget another “Holy Grail” material, asbestos, not to mention the many others we can still find in everyday household products from cosmetics and cleansers to water bottles and air fresheners. Their effects, like many of the other chemicals born out of the frenzied race to make the next “new” thing and dominate market shares, only left us wishing we had looked before we lept.

Flint GM factory 1910

The GM plant on the Flint River in Flint Michigan in the early 20th Century. Factories such as this have led to the pollution of virtually every major fresh water source in the country, eliminating potential drinking water sources.

The Flint River, over the decades, hasn’t been seen as a viable water source because of the known accumulation of these “negligible” toxins. So when it had to resume its role as the city’s primary water source, due to the city’s fiscal challenges with paying Detroit for a share in its municipal water supply, sourced from Lake Huron; both local and federal governmental agencies looked into the safety of the river’s water for consumption. The primary issue that was discovered was that the water had very high levels of Chloride but no other contaminants were mentioned as significant impediments to its usage. Federal water safety experts recommended the addition of another chemical agent that would neutralize the corrosive effects of basically salty water on iron main pipes with lead service lines. This recommendation was summarily ignored and the results are as we’ve seen. Incidentally, this corrosiveness also happened to be a reason GM, that still has some manufacturing facilities in Flint, was given special accommodations to have their water pumped from a different source, because the Flint water was damaging car parts. 

Meanwhile what about the effects on the living people? Cases of lead poisoning have left many families, both children and adults showing early signs of poisoning. They have had aching and brittle bones, a variety of skin rashes and scaliness, as well as hair-loss, to name a few. These are merely the early symptoms, as more severe effects can take up to 5 years to be fully assessed, according to some sources. The most critically affected by lead poisoning however, are the children because lead attaches to the bone and tooth structure and in developing children can do irreparable damage; not to mention the impact to their neurological development and organ systems. Clearly residents of this mostly black and impoverished city will be dealing with the implications of this man-made disaster indefinitely. To add insult to injury, residents still continue to be billed for the toxic water, with threats of losing their children if they don’t comply. If the bill is not paid and the government turns off the water, then the home is without running water. According to Michigan law, if this home has children and does not have running water it is considered neglect and the child protective service will be called in to remove the children from that household. The irony is that the reason most are not paying for the water is because they can not safely use it specifically considering the safety of the children and lead’s known detrimental effect on them. Reportedly, all of the city’s almost 9000 children under the age of six should be considered already exposed. So who is neglectful here?

Nonetheless, these events have led to an outpouring of support in the form of national attention and condemnation of the city’s leadership. Many have donated supplies of bottled water as well as monetarily, to assist the already disadvantaged majority of the city’s residents in the face of this crisis. The lead does not appear to come from the river itself, despite the decades of runoff from GM and other factories dumping lead byproducts, etc. into the river. The problem seems to have arisen from something rather unexpected; road salt, according to Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards. The chloride from the salt is corroding the near hundred year old city pipes releasing the iron and lead into the drinking water as it makes its way to the faucet or household spigot.

Yes, road salt! It seems the further we move away from the simple goal of harmonizing with the natural world, the more problems we create for ourselves. To keep the city’s byways, streets and highways passable in the harsh snowy winters of the region, city and state road services have had to increasingly salt streets over the decades. The increased salting of the roads leaves the runoff of that salt to find its way into the local water tributaries, ultimately increasing the sodium and chloride content of groundwater, major waterways, and ultimately reservoirs that are now the source of Flint’s drinking water. This is true however, of many north and northeastern urban and suburban cities in this country. States are experiencing increasingly severe winters in addition to urban sprawl, in which more roadways are set down to accommodate more traffic to new housing developments etc., which necessitates more road salting in winter storms.

Interestingly, the EPA does not consider sodium and chloride as water contaminants. These naturally occurring compounds that make up ordinary table salt, are largely considered under their effect on taste, for chloride, and to some degree a health threat, for sodium, because of its potentially adverse affect on blood pressure, the heart, and kidneys, in higher concentrations. But, what about chloride’s highly corrosive properties? The implication is that many other cities could be faced with similar issues, as most if not all, in comparable climatic regions, distribute their water through a tangle of decades old pipelines and have indicated similar rises in their water’s chloride content over recent years. This alone should give us pause and be grounds for a serious reassessment of how we live in this modern industrial complex.

To add to that, there are other more nefarious practices that manufacturing and industrial corporations engage in, some we’ve heard about and many others we never will. These are practices that continue despite the already dangerous nature of the industries in themselves, as their manufacturing processes represent another bend in the labyrinth of society’s blind wandering away from nature. Typically, we get wind of these underhanded waste management shortcuts only after they have severely threatened some community’s population. We can recall a number of examples just in the last few years in which thousands of people were affected. For instance, in West Virginia where “coal is king”, one corporation’s chemical storage tank spewed 10,000 gallons of deadly toxins into the Elk River that feeds the water supply of approximately 300,000 residents living in the state’s capital of Charleston and the surrounding areas. Residents were tentatively assured of the water’s safety, and told that, “It’s their decision” whether to drink it or not, but that there could not be 100% assurance of no adverse effects.

Australian Fishermen

Throughout human history, water sources have always been protected as a vital necessity for life, until recently.

Also, who can forget the months-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, not to mention the controversy around fracking (the practice of releasing the natural gas from deep within the earth using a pressurised water, sand and chemical mixture.) The pollution of underground water sources and the households that rely on them for everyday use is alarming. These instances are just a few among what might be rather common occurrences just here in the United States, far less in the numerous other industrialized territories of the world, in hot pursuit of the leading industrial countries.

The real danger in the world has apparently always fell at the feet of humanity’s ambition. So the modern society has thrown all caution to the wind in pursuit of it; no matter the long term cost. We consider the amenities that facilitate our modern lifestyle a mark of achievement. Yet, indigenous cultures who have lived harmoniously with this planet, tread very carefully in this respect. Their goal is not necessarily comfort and convenience, but survival. The question of survival and how this is approached might be arguable. Some might suggest modernity as a way this can be done. However, we don’t have to be very bright to see that the way in which the modern world is approaching this, doesn’t appear to have the preservation of life as a goal but more as an afterthought. From man’s origins, if indeed ways of surviving dared to include modernization as a viable option, then humanity would have aborted itself on the steps of our fledgling moments as a species, and flushed our collective destiny down the drain.

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