Flint water crisis: Lead pipe battle, and how you can help

 The Michigan State University football trailer delivered flats of bottled water to residents of Flint, Michigan, and picked up empty bottles at the same time. Student and community volunteers are taking part in the plastic bottle recycling effort as well as the water distribution. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kennedy and Schupan Recycling)

The Michigan State University football trailer delivered flats of bottled water to residents of Flint, Michigan, and picked up empty bottles at the same time. Student and community volunteers are taking part in the plastic bottle recycling effort as well as the water distribution. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kennedy and Schupan Recycling)

What does it take to overcome a tragedy like poisoned water?

The public health crisis over the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, is a failure of the institutional level of government. The state failed when Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager for Flint, who figured he could save $200 a day with a new water source—and ended up poisoning the town’s water supply. Fixing the entire problem could cost as much as $1.5 billion by some estimates.

The city’s water source switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. The river water caused corrosion in lead pipes, and the leached lead raised lead in the city’s water supply to levels as high as more than 10,000 parts per billion in some homes. The Environmental Protection Agency says that for drinking water to be safe, lead levels need to be less than 15 ppb. The city went back to Lake Huron water last fall, but the problems caused by the corroded lead pipes remain.

On Feb. 17, a standoff started to develop over how and when to fix the city’s lead pipes. The Snyder administration hired a Flint-based engineering firm, Rowe Professional Services, to start the arduous process of replacing the city’s water infrastructure. Rowe will update the recent analysis of water pipes in the city and will launch a pilot program to replace 30 lead service lines into Flint homes  sometime in March. State officials have said they hope to restore drinking water to the city’s residents “in stages,” with a full assessment of the problem to be finished by mid-April.

The next day, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver rejected that timeline. She said she would not agree to allow the engineering firm and contractors that the state hired to do the work, and she wants the replacement to start within one week. “We’re going to get this done—and done quickly—by any and every means necessary,” Weaver said. “The people of my city have simply run out of patience, and I have a moral obligation to act.”

 Gov. Snyder included $195 million for immediate and long-term relief for the people of Flint in his state budget request, with $25 million for water infrastructure. So far, the supplemental budget request passed by the Michigan Legislature includes money for utilities and can be used to survey Flint’s underground network of pipes. But Flint’s lead pipes problem is probably far more extensive. According to a story in the Detroit Free Press:

Of the city’s 56,000 land parcels, about 5,200 have lead service lines, officials have said. But roughly 25,000 parcels have piping of an unknown origin. Determining how much of that piping is lead is a crucial step for any remediation.

In recent weeks, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver has called for a much broader and speedier approach than some have outlined in the Snyder administration. Last week, she unveiled the rough plans for an estimated $55 million public works project to remove all of Flint’s lead pipes from the water distribution system.

But the best way to remove those pipes is still unknown, and finding the money to complete the job remains a challenge.

The state may have failed, but others are stepping up to help the people of Flint in myriad ways.

We’ve read about the heroic actions of the Virginia Tech research team, led by Marc Edwards, PhD, the Charles Lunsford Professor in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Edwards and his team first documented the toxic lead levels in Flint’s water. The team runs the Flint Water Study Project, with progress regularly updated at the Flint Water Study blog. Snyder named Edwards to the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, with the job of finding a long-term answer to the crisis.

In Flint itself, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, also blew the whistle about the water supply when she kept finding elevated lead levels in children’s blood samples. “Dr. Mona,” as she is known in Flint, is the director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint and assistant professor of pediatrics and human development at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is now director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative. It’s a partnership between MSU and the Hurley Medical Center that aims to communicate information and implement interventions to lessen the impact of lead exposure on those most vulnerable—children under 6 years old. Said Dr. Hanna-Attisha:

The creation of this Pediatric Public Health Initiative will give Flint children a better chance at future success. This initiative will bring in a team of experts to build a model pediatric public health program which will continue to assess, monitor, and intervene to optimize children’s outcomes.

Help for Flint is coming from all corners. Celebrities and everyday people have donated water and money for water. And who could forget those 300 union plumbers who donated their time and supplies to install water filters and new faucets for Flint residents—for free?

Flint is only 40 miles away from MSU’s East Lansing campus, and the school and city have worked together for more than 100 years. Legendary Coach Tom Izzo often recruits basketball players from Flint; members of his 2000 championship Spartan team were known as the “Flintstones.”

So it was only natural that MSU is leading a primary response to the crisis. As a land-grant college, the university has the responsibility to turn knowledge into action. Through water distribution, plastic recycling, research, nutrition education, and many other programs, the school is helping to find sustainable actions for Flint.

Two Michigan State officials were named as MSU response effort coordinators: Joan Ilardo, PhD, the director of research initiatives at the MSU College of Human Medicine, and Deanna East, associate state leader of the Health and Nutrition Institute at MSU Extension. In these roles, the two women now spend half their time at offices in Flint. Said Ilardo:

This is Love Canal on steroids. Not only do you have the toxicity, but you have it in a marginalized area with so many financial problems.

Her job is to identify needs and evaluate how the university can help. “We are the eyes and ears of the university in Flint,” she said. “We will coordinate the university’s response. We’ll try to cover all the meetings of the community groups, and see where they can use expertise.”

One of the coordinated efforts involved recycling the plastic from the millions of water bottles that have been distributed, according to Ilardo, and giving volunteers an avenue to help. “People just said, ‘We’re here. What can we do?’ The coaches and athletes had a bus ready and were ready to leave. It just popped into my brain that we needed to do something with all of that plastic.”

Petoskey Plastics donated thousands of recyclable bags to be distributed for returning empty bottles to recycling trailers. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kennedy and Schupan Recycling)

Petoskey Plastics donated thousands of recyclable bags to be distributed for returning empty bottles to recycling trailers. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Kennedy and Schupan Recycling)

Schupan & Sons in Kalamazoo, Michigan, handles recycling for Michigan State. The company’s COO, Tom Emmerich, is also a strong supporter of MSU athletics. It was a natural pairing: The Spartan football trailer made a weekend trip to Flint for water distribution and recycling. Also going to Flint were student athletes, marching band musicians, and members of many other student groups. Weekend trips for more water distribution and recycling are ongoing.

Izzo and the basketball team also got in on the act. The Spartans worked with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Flint to make posters to promote recycling and to assemble recycling bags to be distributed with cases of water.

Schupan also headed the effort to boost the recycling program in Flint. While the city had curbside recycling, it wasn’t well-used, so now there’s an ongoing education program for residents about recycling. At the five water distribution sites in Flint, three have trailers to recycle plastic bottles, and there are pickups every two weeks. According to Schupan, as of January, about 4 million bottles of water have been distributed since the fall. That translates to more than 200,000 pounds of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic.

Another area of the response deals with nutrition. Calcium, vitamin C, and iron are all important nutrients in fighting lead absorption (and perhaps garlic, too). Michigan State officials have held nutrition classes and cooking demonstrations in family and childcare settings and have passed along recipes to Flint residents. MSU Extension and Hurley Children’s Hospital are making plans to distribute “nutrition bags” to preschool and elementary students that will contain non-perishable foods rich in calcium, vitamin C, and iron. The bags also will have recipes; gift cards; and informational material about nutrition, exercise, and child development.

This problem might be overlooked, but pets as well as people drank lead-contaminated water. The MSU College of Veterinary Medicine has a website giving pet owners information on lead-poisoning symptoms in animals.

Research into Flint’s problems is focused on more than just health issues from toxic water. Ongoing economic research projects are studying the problems with the state’s fiscal policies toward economically troubled cities like Flint and the negative effects of the state takeovers. Said Ilardo:

It’s an older infrastructure in a lot of these communities. Because of these governors, 1991 when John Engler came in, we’ve had cut, cut, cut, cut. It’s coming back to haunt us.

Still, Ilardo continues to search for solutions. “I’m looking at this as a real opportunity not only for us to do good but as a co-mingling of efforts of the students and rest of the community,” she said.

Ilardo said one major problem was regaining the trust of Flint residents. Besides being ignored when they first reported the foul water, they’ve received mixed messages from officials all along. “Boil, don’t boil. It’s safe, it’s not safe. It’s been a ping-pong ball.” So she’s asking various community constituency groups she meets with who and where the trusted voices are. “Doctors? Scientists? Who do they believe?”

One person the residents definitely believe is Dr. Hanna-Attisha. “Talk about the messenger who is trusted,” Ilardo said. “She’s probably one of the few. She’s an incredible person.”

Attending meetings of Flint residents “just breaks your heart,” Ilardo said. The National Guard was in charge of water distribution, but residents are skittish about military and police presence. “One woman stood up and said, ‘We don’t want people with guns in our neighborhood.’ ”

The local Red Cross has become the central coordinator of community involvement. There are weekly meetings of about 100 people representing a broad coalition of community groups that assess ongoing needs.

All these efforts by Michigan State and others cost money. An opinion piece in Newsweek by Aron Sousa, MD, interim dean of the MSU College of Human Medicine, reiterates the importance of making sure that all universities, especially land-grant colleges like Virginia Tech and Michigan State, have the resources they need to carry out this important work.

This is truly science in the public interest, and it’s part of the way the nation’s premier public universities make good on the investment our nation and our states made in the 19th century. And it’s a big part of why that investment must continue to be renewed today.

Sadly, there has been a major disinvestment by many states in higher education over the past decade. If we are to address tragedies like the one in Flint when they happen in the future, it is essential that state legislatures around the nation commit to investing in the knowledge and people of land-grant research universities. They are an absolutely essential element in the real-world response to tragedies like the Flint water crisis.

Ilardo couldn’t agree more. “There’s a reason why government is different from business,” she said. “Business is there to make money. Government is there for the people. It’s for their safety, for their health, for their welfare. It’s not necessarily supposed to make money.”

There’s no shortage of ways to help the people of Flint and avenues to find more information:

  • Rachel Maddow’s Maddow Blog has a wide listing of ways to get involved, from donating money to water distribution. (Note: Both FlintKids.com on Maddow Blog and FlintKids.org on the Flint section of Hillary Clinton’s campaign website link to the same place: The Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which accepts donations for the Flint Child Health & Development Fund.)
  • The Michigan State University School of Social Work also has a list of ways to help, from crisis intervention to volunteer opportunities. It also has links to educational resources for residents.
  • The MSU Extension launched a website listing many resources and events about how to fight lead exposure.

Originally published on Daily Kos on Feb. 21, 2016.

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