How The Federal Government Botched Flint's Water Crisis

The state of Michigan didn't bungle this by itself.

01/12/2016 03:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2016
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Residents carry free water being distributed at the Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Flint, Michigan, in February 2015 -- when the government still insisted water from the tap was safe to drink.

Over the summer, people in Flint, Michigan, discovered they had been drinking tap water with dangerously high levels of lead, a neurotoxin that can cause miscarriages and damage children's developing brains. The state government admitted in October that its own actions had contributed to the public health emergency, and several state officials resigned in disgrace at the end of December.  

Local public officials have called on the federal government to intervene. In her successful mayoral bid this past fall, Karen Weaver campaigned in part on that demand.

"We need federal help," Weaver said in September, something she essentially repeated in December when declaring a state of emergency.

In fact, the federal government was already deeply involved. It took the efforts of private citizens to expose the threat to public health, as it had in Washington, D.C., when that city suffered a major water lead crisis a decade ago.

"This experience has really shattered my trust in government," said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician whose research showed a spike in lead poisoning among children after the city switched its water supply in 2014. "It's not that I was naive to start with, but you'd expect that utilities, states, federal agencies would take their jobs seriously and try to protect people rather than deliberately mislead, lie and make up excuses not to protect public health."

People outside the government who were veterans of the D.C. water contamination and coverup helped blow the whistle in Flint. Hanna-Attisha became involved thanks partly to an August barbecue with two lifelong friends, one of whom happened to have worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington when the city's taps spewed lead from 2001 through 2004.

They talked about the then-smoldering controversy over the decision to pull the city's water from the Flint River instead of buying it from Detroit's system. Brown stuff was coming out of people's faucets -- it tasted bad and caused rashes. The city had changed the water supply at the behest of emergency managers installed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in what was supposed to be a cost-saving move. Flint officials toasted the change even though everyone should have known, thanks to an earlier analysis, that the river water could be dangerously corrosive to city pipes.

Residents could tell something had gone wrong with the tap water (it was brown!), but officials pooh-poohed concerns about high lead levels -- just as they had in Washington. Elin Betanzo, the former EPA official, knew a way to the truth.

"You have access to all the health records for the children of Flint," Betanzo recalled telling Hanna-Attisha that night. "I said, 'You've got to do this: You've got to look at your blood lead levels.'"

As director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Hanna-Attisha could sidestep the government to get her hands on blood lead data for children in Flint. It was the same kind of data that had been crucial in Washington.  

Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Then-Mayor Anthony Williams discusses high lead levels in Washington's water at a February 2004 press conference. 

In 2001, a change in treatment chemicals caused unsafe amounts of lead to leach from Washington's aging pipes into the water supply. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the EPA knew of high lead levels by 2002, but it wasn't until a bombshell Washington Post story that the public learned the full scope of the problem -- in January 2004.

Then, two months after the Post story, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a calming report that said nobody had been hurt. Among the 201 residents in homes that had excessively high water lead levels -- more than 300 parts per billion -- nobody's blood lead exceeded the government's "level of concern," the CDC said. Local officials seized on the report, declaring Washington's toxic tap-water event a non-crisis after all.

That CDC study seemed to alter the government's very understanding of the dangers of lead in water. A local task force created to respond to the crisis said in its final report that "there is scant scientific evidence to suggest a direct connection between lead in drinking water and lead absorption into the body" -- a statement that contradicted several previous peer-reviewed studies.

Shortly after the CDC's study came out, the EPA also removed warnings from some of its websites that water with lead levels above 40 parts per billion "poses an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of children and pregnant women." An EPA spokesperson later said the agency couldn't find a scientific basis for the statement when it updated its websites.

Today the agency's position is that no amount of lead in water is safe. The EPA requires local water systems to take action when the lead in water from 10 percent of tested taps exceeds 15 parts per billion.

Lead poisoning is most commonly caused by peeling paint and lead dust in homes constructed before 1978, when the U.S. government banned lead paint for domestic applications. But experts have long known that lead in water can be just as harmful.

In children, the symptoms of lead poisoning include stunted growth, irritability, weight loss, abdominal pain, hearing loss and cognitive dysfunction. But these symptoms might not become apparent for years, and tracing them definitively to lead is all but impossible. Most horrifyingly, kids who suffer lead poisoning can permanently lose IQ points.

Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor with Virginia Tech and an expert on drinking water safety, was skeptical of the CDC's claim that nobody in Washington had been hurt. He tested a theory that maybe the type of rust in city pipes didn't transmit lead as speedily. That theory didn't pan out. In 2005, Edwards -- who two years later would receive a MacArthur "genius" grant -- went on the offense with a series of Freedom of Information Act requests. The local and federal agencies involved in water oversight refused to provide the data on lead levels in D.C. children's blood that underlay the CDC's claims. Using the same strategy that Hanna-Attisha would later deploy in Flint, Edwards obtained the data from a local hospital.

In 2009, Edwards published research finding that high lead levels in D.C. water from 2001 through 2004 resulted in high blood lead levels in hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- of D.C. children. Research that he published in 2013 showed a spike in late-term miscarriages that correlated with the high water lead levels a decade earlier.

Edwards' FOIA requests revealed damning details about the CDC's report, including several emails from officials concerned that key information had been omitted. Crucially, many of the children in the sample had been drinking bottled, instead of tap, water at the time their blood was taken. Abstaining from water with high lead levels for even a short period results in a drop in blood lead.

"Do we want to mention that many of DC residents … have been drinking bottled water before any of this went public?" one of the report's co-authors wrote in an email shortly before the paper was published. That confounding detail was left out.

Edwards’ efforts paid off -- The Washington Post's Robert McCartney reported that Edwards had succeeded in "forcing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to admit that it had misled the public about the risk of lead in the District's drinking water." A House subcommittee in 2010 investigated the CDC's report and produced a scathing paper of its own. It called the agency's conclusions "scientifically indefensible."

"The CDC report flew in the face of every peer-reviewed scientific study on the effect of lead exposure that had ever been published, and they went forward knowing it was based on flawed information," said former Rep. Brad Miller, who had chaired the subcommittee, in an interview with The Huffington Post.

The CDC didn't retract its report, but added some important asterisks -- including a "notice to readers" explaining that "the blood lead levels did not necessarily represent what peak blood levels might have been before the problems with the DC water supply were recognized." It also explained that some blood data had been missing from the original analysis.

In 2011, the journal Environmental Research published a continuation of the CDC's work that found that lead pipes carrying water directly to people's houses were, in fact, a risk factor for high lead levels in Washington's kids from 2001 through 2004.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who became director of the CDC in 2009, said the following year that the original report "left room for misinterpretation and may have led some people to improperly minimize concerns about lead exposure and conclude that lead in the water had never been a problem."

Miller, a liberal Democrat from North Carolina who has since left Congress, found the whole experience exasperating.

"It undermines the credibility of government agencies," he said. "I found articles in right-wing publications that seemed to relish the stories as evidence that government can't be trusted."

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Now it's the turn of Flint residents to wonder whether they can trust their government to tell the truth about the tap water.

Last year, it happened again.

One morning in August, Michael Webber was sitting at his desk, browsing on the computer with his father-in-law.

"Everything's normal, fine. All of a sudden, I noticed a fuzzy spot," Webber, 45, told HuffPost. "And I'm like, 'What is that?' I closed my right eye and my vision was just gone. And I'm like, 'That's odd.'"

Webber lives in a moderate-to-low income neighborhood on the south side of Flint with his wife and two daughters. They get by on Social Security disability benefits because of spinal injuries, hers from a car accident, his a degenerative condition.

"My husband said to my dad, 'How unusual, I just lost vision in one eye. I can't see out of it,'" Keri Webber recalled in an interview.

Michael Webber said his doctors told him that his blood pressure had risen swiftly enough to cause an "eye stroke." An opthamologist told him his full vision would never come back.

"An artery in my eye burst. Now, we have been tracking my blood pressure, which had been steadily elevating since the switch" to the Flint River as the city's water supply, Webber said. "They're just saying it's due to high blood pressure. However, my blood pressure normally is 140 over 80. I'm getting readings 160 over 95, 160 over 100."

High blood pressure is a symptom of lead poisoning in adults. The Webbers said they quit drinking from their taps in June and limited bathing to twice a week.

Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, main author of a 2006 review of the scientific literature on the relationship between lead and cardiovascular disease, said that available research doesn't indicate how long symptoms persist after exposure stops. Blood lead levels can decline within a month, but the lead doesn't actually go away.

"Lead accumulates in the body, in the bones, and from there it remains as an internal source of exposure for a long time," Navas-Acien, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said in an interview.

Keri Webber is certain the water poisoned her husband.

"He's not middle-aged, he's certainly not elderly," she said. "And we have [been to] 14 doctor's appointments in two weeks, and what they have found is he had an eye stroke, literally, due to high blood pressure. They ruled out everything but lead."

This poisoning of an entire population was entirely preventable. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

The city and state governments resisted tackling Flint's problem last year even in the face of several bright red flags.  

In June, more than a year after the city had begun using the Flint River as its water source, an EPA official named Miguel Del Toral wrote up the preliminary results of his investigation into reports of high lead levels. The memo lamented the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's failure to make sure the river water was treated so that it wouldn't corrode the city's pipes, many of which contained lead. Del Toral explained that federal rules require systems of Flint's size to control for corrosion.

"A major concern from a public health standpoint is the absence of corrosion control treatment in the City of Flint for mitigating lead and copper levels in the drinking water," Del Toral wrote. "Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water, which is to be expected in a public water system that is not providing corrosion control treatment. The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern for residents that live in homes with lead service lines or partial lead service lines, which are common throughout the City of Flint."

That memo wasn't supposed to be released, but Curt Guyette, a reporter for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, obtained a copy from Lee Ann Walters, a Flint resident who had been given a copy by Del Toral after he took water samples from her house. She'd contacted the EPA because she was worried about her water and her kids.

City and state officials downplayed Del Toral's report, and the EPA said it was only a draft that wasn't supposed to be released. Brad Wurfel, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told a local reporter in July that "anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax." In August, department officials met with Flint residents -- including Walters -- and told them that Del Toral had been "handled" and that his report wouldn't be finalized.

Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor, had been watching the Flint water situation since Walters sought him out for additional tests on her water, which Edwards' analysis revealed to have "toxic waste" levels of lead. When he heard about the meeting and the dismissive tone that officials took with Walters, he got mad.

"I was shaking with anger because to brag, smirk, laugh at a mother with lead-poisoned kids, what kind of people do that?" Edwards said. "Frankly, they're just evil, horrible people."

His experience battling various levels of government over Washington's water crisis has left him so jaded that he almost sounds like a conspiracy theorist.

"In D.C., I learned that you can't trust your kids with a government agency," Edwards said.

Philip Lewis/The Huffington Post
Like many other Flint residents, the Webbers are buying a lot of bottled water.

After Michigan state officials downplayed Del Toral's report, Edwards assembled a team of his Virginia Tech colleagues and students to independently test Flint's water, marshaling the help of activists and volunteers there to collect samples. When state officials said they doubted his preliminary results, which showed high lead levels, Edwards launched FOIA requests for Michigan's own data and official correspondence related to the government's response.

Edwards' team also created a website, FlintWaterStudy.org, where they publicly posted everything they found -- a strategy inspired by D.C. water safety activist Yanna Lambrinidou, who had run a similar website in Washington.

"Once we saw the lead in water was high, we started directly working with ACLU and the activist groups in Flint, which is kind of something you don't do, because people will say you're an activist," Edwards said. "But what I learned in D.C., science alone is powerless, absolutely powerless, to these agencies. Facts mean nothing to these people. Scientific truth means nothing to them."

The emails uncovered through Edwards' record requests revealed bumbling by the state government, but also the degree to which the EPA helped state and local leaders try to allay public concerns.

Susan Hedman, the administrator of the regional EPA office, told then-Mayor Dayne Walling in a July email that Del Toral's "preliminary draft report should not have been released outside the agency" -- something Hedman reiterated in several other messages. During his unsuccessful re-election campaign, Walling told voters that Del Toral's report didn't reflect the opinion of the entire agency.

"Hedman just buried the thing," Edwards said. "Edit and vet it until no one cares."

In a recent interview, Hedman said Del Toral's urging that the state implement corrosion control for Flint's water was a recommendation that the EPA was already making to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. She said the EPA clammed up about the memo because it contained identifying information about a private citizen, Lee Ann Walters, and her children's blood lead levels. The EPA stayed quiet even after Wurfel, the Michigan department spokesman, called Del Toral a "rogue employee" in the fall.

"It seemed the best course of action for us at the time was not to talk about the report per se," Hedman said, noting that the EPA did say it was helping state and local agencies with the water situation.

Though the EPA stayed mum about Del Toral's report, Hedman said the Department of Environmental Quality apologized to him for the "rogue" characterization. She emphasized that Del Toral is part of the team. "He is one of the top experts in the world on lead and copper in drinking water and a key member of EPA's Flint Safe Drinking Water Task Force," she said.

In late September, Dr. Hanna-Attisha released her findings documenting a spike in blood lead levels among Flint's kids that corresponded with the city's water switch (the research was later formally published in the American Journal of Public Health). The county government issued a lead advisory, and in October the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted that it had failed to follow federal rules for corrosion control. Soon after, Flint switched back to Detroit's water system, though it's unclear how soon lead levels will fall.

HuffPost asked Hedman why it took outside pressure to force a change.

"An informed public that calls on government to take action is an important force for protection of the environment and public health," Hedman said. 

Hanna-Attisha put it more strongly: "This poisoning of an entire population was entirely preventable." 

At the end of the year, Wurfel and Department of Environmental Quality director Dan Wyant both resigned. "I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened," Gov. Snyder said at the time.

In D.C., I learned that you can't trust your kids with a government agency. Professor Marc Edwards

Several Flint residents have sued over the harm to their health, but if what happened in Washington is any guide, they won't get swift justice.

Several D.C. parents went to court, asking for compensation for injuries to their children allegedly caused by lead poisoning. The courts wouldn't let a class action case proceed, and now just a handful of families expect to go to trial this year.

One of the plaintiffs, John Parkhurst, a single father of two boys, alleges that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (now DC Water) knew of high lead levels in 2001 and did nothing to warn consumers. In 2007, worried about his sons' behavioral and learning difficulties, Parkhurst took them to a doctor for neurophysical evaluation, which identified learning and attention problems. The cost of medication and therapy for the boys eventually totaled as much as $75,000, the suit contends, and the boys also face "diminished earning capacity because of the intellectual impairments they have suffered."

Washington has kept its lead levels below the EPA's required action level since 2005, and DC Water said lead levels are historically low.

Despite scientific evidence that, at a minimum, hundreds of children suffered elevated blood lead levels in the early 2000s, DC Water chief George Hawkins told HuffPost that it's not clear to him that anyone had been harmed by the once-toxic water. Hawkins formerly served as the city's point person on lead poisoning prevention.

"In most of the lead cases we worried about in the city, you almost always track it down to lead paint or something of a much greater concentration," Hawkins said. "I think the jury is still out."

Arthur Delaney reported from Washington. Philip Lewis reported from Flint. 

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