What’s In Your Water? Flint and Beyond

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, July 4th, 2016


Executive Summary

What happened in Flint?

The devastating lead contamination of the tap water in Flint, Michigan—a majority African American city with a poverty rate above 40 percent—has become a full-blown national scandal. In 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager decided to switch from the Lake Huron–supplied water from Detroit’s water system to the highly corrosive and polluted water from the Flint River, without treatment to control the corrosion of lead pipes. Soon, citizens complained about dark-colored, foul-tasting, smelly water that residents say caused skin rashes and hair loss. Lead levels in the water also skyrocketed; independent tests found levels at double the “action level” for lead set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)— and in some cases many times worse than that. As citizens increasingly voiced their concerns, state officials were “callous and dismissive,” according to a recent report by the independent Flint Task Force, which was established by the governor in October 2015.

Why is lead so harmful?

No amount of exposure to lead is safe. The goal is to allow no exposure to lead at all, especially for children, who are both more susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts. Even at very low levels once considered safe, lead can cause serious, irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of babies and young children. Lead can decrease a child’s cognitive capacity, cause behavior problems, and limit the ability to concentrate—all of which, in turn, affect the ability to learn in school. Children with serious lead-related brain impacts are less likely to graduate from high school and more prone to delinquency, teen pregnancy, violent crime, and incarceration.

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “the consequences of brain injury from exposure to lead in early life are loss of intelligence, shortening of attention span and disruption of behaviour. Because the human brain has little capacity for repair, these effects are untreatable and irreversible. They cause diminution in brain function and reduction in achievement that last throughout life.” However, certain interventions after exposure, such as additional educational and nutritional support, may help to reduce the longer-term impacts.

Among pregnant women, lead exposure can cross the placental barrier of the womb and harm the fetus. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, “Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility (in both men and women).” Even in otherwise healthy adults, lead exposure can cause adverse cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure.

NRDC - Drinking Water Pipes

Flint highlights that the U.S. drinking water program and lead rules are inadequate

Flint’s water crisis highlights potentially disastrous gaps in the provision of safe drinking water to all people, especially the most vulnerable. These shortcomings are complex, far-reaching, and unacceptable and include poor and unaccountable decision-making by public officials as well as deficiencies in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Lead and Copper Rule, the EPA’s standard under the Act. Weak regulatory language and poor implementation and enforcement of the Lead and Copper Rule at the federal and state levels are at the heart of the problem.

The state of Michigan bears responsibility for its harmful decisions regarding Flint, and for neglecting its primary enforcement responsibilities. However, the EPA also failed to act promptly and appropriately to execute its obligations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In fact, NRDC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-MI) served upon EPA a petition on behalf of Flint residents on October 1, 2015, requesting an intervention many months before the agency issued an administrative order on January 21, 2016, directed at city and state officials. Ultimately, NRDC and ACLU-MI also filed litigation on behalf of local citizens in an effort to address Flint’s water woes.

Flint illustrates the broader problem of environmental injustice—meaning the disproportionate exposure of lower-income communities and communities of color to environmental hazards. For more than a year, government officials callously downplayed or ignored Flint’s toxic water and the majority-black community’s cries for help. Federal EPA, state, and state-appointed local environmental officials belittled and refused to listen to Flint residents and their advocates. NRDC recommends ensuring that citizens have a seat at the table to make decisions about their drinking water, especially when it is obvious that their public officials won’t protect them.

While a full evaluation of the broader environmental justice implications of lead-contaminated drinking water is beyond the scope of this report, NRDC is analyzing data on lead and other drinking water contaminants to assess the degree to which low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by drinking water contamination. A detailed report on this subject is forthcoming.

Flint is not alone: over 18 million people were served by systems violating the lead and copper rule in 2015

While Flint represents a clear case of extreme lead contamination, it does not have a monopoly on serious lead problems. In order to evaluate the national extent of violations of the Lead and Copper Rule, NRDC has obtained official EPA violation and enforcement records. We have conducted extensive data analysis, using geographic information system (GIS) mapping software to highlight and map the scope of lead-related issues in drinking water systems across the United States.

Our analysis indicates that in 2015, over 18 million people were served by 5,363 community water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule. These violations included failures to properly test the water for lead or conditions that could result in lead contamination, failures to report contamination to state officials or the public, and failures to treat the water appropriately to reduce corrosion. (See figures 1 and 2 for locations of these violations.) Additionally, in 2015, 1,110 community water systems serving 3.9 million people showed lead levels in excess of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in at least 10 percent of the homes tested, the action level established for lead under the Lead and Copper Rule (see figure 3). Figures 1, 2, and 3 highlight the extraordinary geographic scope of Lead and Copper Rule violations and lead action level exceedances.

It may be surprising to many that the EPA’s database does not list Flint among the systems in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. In fact, despite the headlines and national outrage, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) apparently still has not officially reported Flint to be in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. At the same time, the Michigan attorney general’s recent criminal indictments of state and local officials who had a hand in the Flint crisis certainly acknowledge that the Rule was violated. In addition, many lead violations across the country have undoubtedly been hidden by intentional use of monitoring techniques that avoid detecting lead problems—techniques that the EPA long allowed to continue unabated. The EPA issued a guidance document on February 29, 2016, saying three of these methods should not be used, after years of pressure to stop these practices.

Underreporting of violations in the EPA’s database can be attributed to a variety of causes. Sometimes, public water systems fail to properly monitor their water (e.g., by using testing methods or strategies that avoid detecting contamination, as was the case in Flint), so violations are not recorded and reported. In other cases, states fail to correctly document violations. States also fail to report known violations into the EPA’s database as required by federal law. As highlighted by the Michigan attorney general’s criminal charges against state and city officials for allegedly failing to accurately report Flint’s lead problems, reporting failures may hide serious health threats.

NRDC has documented underreporting problems in the EPA’s drinking water database for 25 years; the EPA itself admits that “audits and assessments have shown that violation data are substantially incomplete.” In 2004, an in-depth investigation by The Washington Post documented dozens of instances of utilities providing water with high lead levels that were not reported as violating the Lead and Copper Rule. Therefore, the widespread violations evidenced by the EPA’s data and the maps contained in this report reflect only a subset of a serious and likely much bigger lead problem.

Download full version (PDF): What’s In Your Water?

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
NRDC is the nation’s most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of more than 2 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of nearly 500 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.

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