The Crisis in Flint Isn’t Over. It’s Everywhere
By Ben Paynter
Photographs by Dan Winters
At his home near Kearsley Park, on the east side of Flint, Michigan, Tony Palladeno Jr. grabs his keys and a pair of 1-liter medical-grade plastic bottles–one full and one empty. He filled the first yesterday, with slightly cloudy water from his own tap. To fill the second, he strolls a few doors down to a two-story home he once rented out. The place looks move-in-ready, with new windows, fresh trim, and crisp beige siding. But it’s vacant, just like three other rentals Palladeno owns on this block.
Some of his tenants moved out in the winter of 2015, after much of the city’s municipal water turned murky, reeking like swamp muck. Others stuck it out a little longer, even when the city issued boil advisories (E. coli in the water) and a notice about high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of disinfectants.
That autumn, 21 percent of the tap water sampled from the dilapidated, bohemian neighborhood around Kearsley Park was positive for lead contamination. In fact, every residential zip code in Flint has houses that have tested hot.
In January, Genesee County health officials reported another waterborne threat–87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in two years, with 10 deaths. It’s one of the largest outbreaks in US history. The entire city was vulnerable to either heavy metal or bacterial poisoning.
Palladeno’s bottles are part of a sampling effort run by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to map the chaos. Entering his rental, Palladeno ignores the chirp from a dying smoke alarm and heads to the kitchen sink to fill his bottle. “Bada bing,” he says, although it comes off flatly. Palladeno is supposed to drop his sample at city hall, but he has a more pressing concern. He’s not thirsty now, but he will be. So he steers his late-model Buick downtown, following signs tacked to wooden pallets leaning against trees and street posts. The messages–WATER PICKUP, with big blue arrows–lead to a fire station parking lot, where National Guardsmen in fatigues and orange vests watch over 6-foot-tall towers of bottled water.
You used to have to show ID–one case per person. After an uproar, that changed to two, no license required. Sometimes Palladeno and his wife come together and take four, stockpiling. Today one of the Guardsmen recognizes Palladeno and starts loading his trunk. “I tell you what I’m afraid of,” Palladeno says. “Once summer hits and the heat comes, we’re going to be fighting for this water.”
At city hall, he joins a procession of dazed-looking people dropping off water samples. It doesn’t feel like science in action. In fact, it’s a mess: Somehow many volunteers got the wrong kind of bottle, so their samples get set off to the side. Others have lost paperwork, so they’ve guessed at a few methodological particulars.
Palladeno was already skeptical. Like most Flint residents, he has come to distrust people from any level of government. He figures if anyone is going to save Flint, it’ll be people like him, who grew up there.
He has found someone to believe in, though–the person who was first to help, first to try to figure out what was going on in Flint, a folk hero scientist on the front lines of the battle against apocalypse. This is a town where uniformed guards deliver water to designated resupply drops and health care workers draw blood at overrun churches and elementary schools. Who can say whether the government guys are doing anything right? “When Marc Edwards comes in,” Palladeno says, “I can see if they are up to par.”
In early 2003 an Environmental Protection Agency subcontractor called Cadmus Group was looking into a singular problem: Homes all over Washington, DC, were springing pinhole leaks in their water pipes. So Cadmus hired a young environmental engineer at Virginia Tech named Marc Edwards as a consultant.
The leaks seemed confined to residential copper. PVC pipes and municipal lines weren’t leaking. That made Edwards think that the problem was in the city water supply. In the US, municipal drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which compels utilities to monitor things like microorganisms and the disinfectants used to subdue them. In 1998 the EPA tightened its standards on disinfectants, many of which can have their own toxic byproducts. One of the worst offenders is a classic: chlorine. Its main replacement, a chemical called chloramine (really just a mix of chlorine and ammonia), has lower levels of carcinogenic breakdown products, but it also makes the water corrosive–enough to eat through metal.
It turned out that the District of Columbia’s Water and Sewer Authority had in fact swapped chlorine for chloramine in 2000. But when Edwards went into homes to check the damage, he discovered something even scarier than leaks. The corrosive water was burning through service lines and solders–and those contained lead. The water was even pitting the lead-infused brass in water meters and faucets. At one stop on the first floor of an old apartment building, Edwards ran a sample of water through a portable colorimeter. He got an error message. After diluting the sample with distilled water, it still registered a lead reading of 1,250 parts per billion. The EPA’s threshold for lead is 15 ppb.
Lead is insidiously useful. It’s hard but malleable, is relatively common, melts at a low enough temperature to be workable, and doesn’t rust. The Romans used it for plumbing–in fact, that word derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Even the Romans noticed, as early as 312 BC, that lead exposure seemed to cause strange behaviors in people. But as Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, lead pipes solved a lot more problems than they caused. The hydrologists of the 19th century knew that lakes and wells could harbor cholera; they needed large, clean bodies of water that they could pump into the city. Lead made those pipes possible.
In fact, lead was the key to a lot of technologies. It made bullets heavy, paint opaque, and gasoline more potent. It’s also toxic. To a human body, lead looks like calcium; we slurp it out of our environment and absorb it into our bones and cells, especially neurons. By 1970 it had become clear to scientists that unlike calcium, lead causes irrevocable damage to those neurons, disrupting intellect and development.
But the pipes were already in the ground. So in 1991 the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring utilities to check water regularly. The critical level has changed over the years as new science has come to light, but today officials are required to take action if lead exceeds 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of residents’ taps. The metric is utilitarian, scaled to spot trouble just before it turns into disaster. It’s a good rule, as long as utilities follow it.
After houses in DC started showing up hot, Edwards checked into the city’s lead and copper protocols. The city was sampling at really wide time intervals, sending most of what was sitting inside the service line down the drain. Edwards had the agency retest on nonflushed lines and close the time gap.
Nearly every new sample showed lead well above the redline. Edwards implored the agency to test the whole city. Cadmus didn’t renew his contract.
On January 31, 2004, The Washington Post exposed the subsequent cover-up. According to a later congressional report, tens of thousands of homes–two-thirds of those tested–had tap water that registered above the legal action limit. Some samples tripped 5,000 ppb, the technical definition of hazardous waste. Worse still, the EPA was giving out bad health advice, telling people to flush their water lines in a way that actually increased exposure.
Edwards, meanwhile, had become so obsessed with the problem that he’d forgotten to maintain the well water for his own house, which had plunged to a dangerously low pH. “I wasn’t taking care of myself or my family or my job,” he says. “I had this moment of total panic where maybe I’d just poisoned my family with lead.” He couldn’t take it. One night Edwards thought he was having a heart attack; he’d developed an arrhythmia.
This kind of obsession wasn’t new to Edwards. Impossibly fragile systems have always attracted him. In the 1970s, his father was principal of the only K-12 school in the rural town of Ripley, in western New York. The town’s main business, grape farming, was shriveling. Recognizing the inevitable, the elder Edwards proposed that the school consolidate with a cross-county rival. In response, the family’s house was splattered with tomatoes, and Marc got beaten up on the way to class. “My dad was kind of a moral exemplar to me,” Edwards says. “The writing was on the wall that something had to be done. Our family paid a big price.”
Young Marc found peace on the shores of nearby Lake Erie, which after decades of industrial and wastewater pollution was beginning to recover. He started keeping aquariums, carefully tuning their artificial ecosystems. For a while Edwards–tall, lean, intense, like an elongated George Clooney–thought he might become a marine biologist. But hearing about Love Canal, where 22,000 tons of toxic chemicals had been discovered oozing beneath school land in upstate New York, near where he’d grown up, pointed him in a more political direction. After earning a degree in biophysics, he started a PhD in environmental engineering at the University of Washington, focusing on water quality control. “One of the things that I found appealing when I went into it was that I would not have to deal with ethical dilemmas,” he says dryly.
Back when Edwards was a kid messing around with aquariums, he spent years tinkering with the symbiosis between a clown fish and a sea anemone. If the fish coats itself in the plant’s slime, it can nest within the poisonous, tentacle-like nematocysts. In the open sea, they depend on each other for either nutrients or protection. It’s a delicate balance–and in the closed, artificial ecosystem of an aquarium, futile. “I realized if I got really good I was just killing them slower and slower. I had to give it up,” Edwards says.
Thirty years later in Washington, he was trying to fix a system just as fragile but with far higher stakes. From his office at Virginia Tech, he fired off Freedom of Information Act requests to the state and the Feds. It took five years, but eventually Edwards pieced together the data that proved massive lead exposure. The congressional investigation found that the municipal authority in DC had disregarded test results for years. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of children had been affected.
In response, the city eventually replaced thousands of lead service lines with pipes made of copper–but it didn’t touch the pipes under people’s homes. Edwards knew that would cause another problem. Water carries a small electric charge, and the places where two metals meet are highly conductive. Without a simple patch that every plumber knows how to use, those spots undergo galvanic corrosion. And of course DC didn’t install the patches. Edwards’ multiyear tests indicate that over time those points of corrosion will release more lead–exposing people all over again. Meanwhile, a CDC report estimates that 15,000 homes in the district are still contaminated.
The DC fight radicalized Edwards. According to the EPA, at least 7.3 million lead service lines lie beneath the surface of most major cities. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s entire substructure a D-plus rating. Any day in any place there could be another problem. “You don’t witness something like that and come out whole,” Edwards says. “You can crawl into a hole and get depressed, or you can fight.” Edwards decided to fight. To do it, he knew he’d have to spot budding disasters fast–to stop the next public health failure before it escalated.
He realized he needed to watch for what he calls “lightning strikes”–strange, small-scale epidemics. Then he could replicate in his lab whatever was causing the problematic water conditions and gin up a solution. Edwards turned his engineering students into a team of forensic investigators on watch for problems. And they started finding some. Soon Edwards was writing new coagulant-and-disinfectant-based prescriptions to help engineers fix their own mini-cataclysms in Hawaii, North Carolina, and Louisiana.
But he never forgot the lesson of DC. Taped to the door of Edwards’ office at Virginia Tech is a slip of paper that reads: “This, thought Winston, was the most frightening aspect of the party regime–that it could obliterate memory, turn lies into Truth and alter the Past …”
It’s from George Orwell’s 1984, a reminder of the doublethink Edwards encountered in DC. He still considers his work there a total failure. “These agencies, over every objection I made, went ahead and poisoned kids,” Edwards says. He wasn’t going to let that happen again.
FLINT IS JUST THE LATEST DISASTER
Contamination of Aquifers and Air
Chemicals in Soil and Water
Chemicals in Drinking Water
Chemicals in Drinking Water
Gas Pipeline Explosion
Chemicals in Drinking Water
Natural Gas Leak
Legionella in Cooling Towers
Last August a woman named Lee-Anne Walters telephoned Edwards to talk to him about water problems in Flint, where she lived. The local GM plant had been forced to switch away from the municipal water supply because engine parts were corroding, she said. Her family had health problems. The growth of one of Walters’ twin sons seemed stunted.
It was a lightning strike.
If a kid is a little short or missing some IQ points, it’s tough to tell. But with identical twins you can compare. In DC in the mid-1980s, the height difference between one pair of twin girls had helped residents realize something was amiss in at least one neighborhood. Nearly two decades later, mental differences in twin boys were among the first hints that DC’s total danger was underreported.
Walters’ house had been rehabbed and outfitted with PVC piping in 2011 before she and her family moved in. That meant lead solders or brass devices couldn’t be at fault. Edwards knew the problem had to be the city water supply.
A former mill town and carriage-making outpost, early 20th-century Flint had boasted a skilled workforce and enough garages and workshops to lure auto industry titans like David Buick, Louis Chevrolet, GM founder William Durant, and AC Spark Plugs’ Albert Champion. Together, their better, cheaper cars turned Flint into the real birthplace of the automobile boom. In 1960, the population spiked to 200,000. Then oil shortages and foreign competition hit, halting gas-guzzler production and forcing manufacturing overseas. Flint was decimated. It ended up being the backdrop for Michael Moore’s career-making 1989 documentary, Roger & Me, which vilified GM CEO Roger Smith.
In March 2013 the nearly bankrupt city tried to cut costs by changing its municipal water supplier. The water authority realized it would be cheaper to build a new pipeline from Lake Huron instead of pumping water from Detroit. That would take about three years, so a state emergency manager approved a plan to draw directly from the nearby Flint River in the interim. Customers complained almost immediately after the changeover a year later; their children felt achy and ill, and many folks were losing hair and developing sores and rashes. So the city’s mayor went on TV and drank a glass of water and told everyone it was safe. See? He felt fine.
On their 2015 call, Edwards asked Walters to mail him some water samples. When they arrived, he ran them through the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer at his lab and was astonished at the readout. The water from Flint registered 133 times the EPA lead limit. Walters notified a local EPA agent, who wrote an agency memo calling for wider testing. Nothing happened, and in the meantime, authorities from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told Walters the problem was likely inside her house only. They suggested she hook up hoses to funnel water from her neighbors. Her family developed staph infections.
But Edwards wasn’t going to let this end like Washington. He was ready. He invited a bunch of his students into a conference room down the hall from a large water-testing lab to explain the stakes: Gathering and releasing real-time results would either publicly insult the agencies responsible or show that the academics themselves were misguided. “You can’t win,” Edwards told them. “But you might not lose.” Everyone was in.
The team assembled 300 kits, bread-loaf-sized cardboard boxes with individual ID codes, containing three medical-grade sampling bottles inside a large Ziploc and instructions on how to sample at timed intervals (including a link to a how-to video on YouTube).
Then Edwards and a few of his students piled into his wife’s 2004 Toyota Sienna van, which they had refitted into a makeshift mobile lab. After 11 hours on the road, most of the team checked into a Flint-area hotel; Edwards stayed on Walters’ couch. Her house became their base camp.
Flint residents would collect evidence from their faucets, the plumbing, and then street lines. Walters and a team of locals set up distribution points for the kits at local churches and community centers. They also went door-to-door to make sure every part of the city would be represented. Within two weeks, the team received 252 kits back. The high end of these readings was nearly twice the EPA limit. After crunching the numbers, Edwards called any resident whose samples crested 5 ppb. Don’t drink tap water at all, he told them. Flush your line for at least five minutes before cooking or bathing with the water, and use a filter that’s NSF-certified for lead, like from Brita or Pur.
Knowing a crisis like this would someday come, the team had developed a playbook of what to do with abundant community cooperation. They had other tests ready to deploy, and soon figured out that the water was 20 times more corrosive than water from Detroit; it could eat through lead solders and iron mains. Flint River water was already known to be corrosive, as was chlorine, the disinfectant the city was using to clean it at the processing plant. A hydrologist might neutralize that with a standard corrosion inhibitor like orthophosphate. Michigan officials haven’t been clear about why they didn’t add it.
In mid-September, Edwards held a conference and town hall meeting in Flint to highlight the emerging problem. A student put together FlintWaterStudy.org–a website to quantify the cause so people could see what was happening. And it all had an impact. Within weeks, the city, state, and a local nonprofit spent $12 million to switch back to Detroit water.
But Edwards foresaw more trouble. The city’s eroding water mains could also be rendering municipal disinfectants useless, he realized; sloughed-off iron can bond with chlorine, neutralizing its effectiveness against germs. That would explain the rashes, staph infections, and so on. Worse, Flint’s population used to be twice as big as it is today, which means the water system was built to serve more people. Today the water tends to sit around and warm up before it gets used–making it a perfect incubator for Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. The team overnighted some chilled samples from local hospitals and college campuses back to its lab, where microbial DNA evidence proved the bacteria was widespread.
In January the governor requested a declaration of a state of emergency, and President Obama called in the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And this time, perhaps because of the public pressure he and his team created, Edwards’ FOIA requests actually got answers. The team highlighted and annotated questionable email exchanges–you can see them online–between the Flint City Council, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the EPA, to create a sort of true-crime CliffsNotes. (State employees were already drinking bottled water as they downplayed citizens’ concerns.) During a livestreamed symposium, the team unveiled a Blame Report Card for every agency involved in the crisis. No one escaped blame. Everyone was responsible. At least one student was so overcome that he had to take a break from explaining the fallout.
Even when the government started taking action, it still wasn’t enough. Walters led Tony Palladeno and a dozen other Flint activists in a convoy of cars to the Block, a squared-off, van-sized hunk of granite next to a railroad track that has become a kind of local art space and communications nexus, painted and repainted with everything from street art to makeshift memorials. Edwards’ team from Virginia Tech was still working, but the EPA and local agencies were also trying to intercede. Walters’ band of angry Flinters had no confidence in that. They painted the Block white and then, trading around a can of black spray paint so their fingers wouldn’t freeze on the frigid afternoon, wrote a specific plea for help: YOU WANT OUR TRUST??? WE WANT VA TECH!
Early in 2016 the beleaguered citizens of Flint got their wish. The governor of Michigan appointed Edwards to the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, the group in charge of remediation for the city. The first thing Edwards did was deputize his students. They resampled their original set of homes to look for changes and checked on EPA methods to confirm each wave of federal data. Recently the EPA excavated several chunks of lead service line and shipped them to one of its laboratories in Oregon, where hydrologists will connect each piece of conduit to a recirculating water system. They’ll run different kinds of water chemistries on the loop to track what the next round of coagulants, disinfectants, and anticorrosives might do.
Flint residents are taking their own action too. This winter Melissa Mays, who helped Walters organize the citywide grassroots collection, started getting phone calls from universities around the US. Researchers wanted to connect with the network of hundreds of volunteers trained to collect tap water. A team at Northwestern University is tinkering with a filter capable of capturing more particulates and perhaps even harmful microbes. Mays is coordinating sample deliveries to labs around the country.
In February she went a step further, donning a winter coat and tromping through some underbrush to take a few samples of raw Flint River water for researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern. Mays, a mother of three, does PR for radio stations and is a heavy-metal-band promoter. Over the past two years, most of her appliances have broken, and she and her kids have gotten sick. They’ve had to live with the windows open during the winter to air out the stink from a broken water main flooding their basement. At first it only felt natural to Mays to protest. Today she’s more excited to put on plastic gloves and submerge a bottle.
Dean Paxton runs the Flint River Water Support Group on Facebook, a news-sharing service where folks also go to receive instant advice on where it’s safe to eat. (Most restaurants now leave their water reports out on the counter.) Maurice Ratcliff recently used his own Facebook group, Flint Lives Matter, to organize an impromptu resupply rally in front of city hall, where anyone could drive by and get more free water. Nayyirah Shariff’s group, Flint Rising, canvasses the city, contacting people who are off the grid or undocumented to see what help they need. Joe Curry, a private well driller who lives outside the city, has learned that he doesn’t need to advertise when he parks his 3,000-gallon water truck to pass out the stuff for free. People now drive around with empty jugs in their backseat or trunk, waiting for a friend to text or tweet a sighting. “Absolutely beautiful water–no rust, no iron, no lead!” Curry shouts, like a carnival barker. He has rigged the tank with a four-spigot manifold. Lines form within minutes.
Ultimately, Flint’s entire network of service pipes will likely have to be replaced. Other cities may follow suit: Activists are now calling out problems elsewhere in Michigan as well as in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In March, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council recommended that all cities replace their lead service lines. It could cost as much as $50 billion. For his part, Palladeno’s samples came back loaded. More recent tests show some diminishment, but his eyes still burn and he still has rashes. He’s losing tufts of hair.
After Edwards’ team presents all its data back at Virginia Tech, its members throw themselves a Chinese hot pot dinner at Edwards’ house in Blacksburg. They are shaken. Grad student Siddhartha Roy stands near the simmering pot and curses the “assholes” responsible. “Fuckers,” Edwards calls the bureaucrats in Michigan and DC, “rolling out the same horseshit.”
But the night isn’t completely dark. Walters is there with her family. (After she started protesting, her husband couldn’t find work, so he had to reenlist in the Navy.) At one point, Walters pulls out a 2-liter bottle of bright blue cotton-candy-flavored Faygo soda–the only thing she’ll drink from Michigan. She pours some for Edwards and they toast each other.
Edwards isn’t working in a vacuum. This kind of citizen-powered, apocalypse-averting science is spreading. As cities struggle with economic, political, or even climatic change, things their planners never predicted challenge their industrial guts. Other teams are trying to look ahead for these threats. This is science in a postjournal world, where researchers are learning that there’s a difference between publishing results and actually, you know, getting them. Steve Wing at the University of North Carolina supplies rural residents with portable blood-pressure monitors to study the potential link between commercial-hog-farm stink and heart issues. The Clean Air Coalition in western New York deployed vacuum pumps attached to plastic-lined 5-gallon buckets to monitor the harmful benzene emissions coming from a coke refinery. “Sometimes numbers speak louder than people,” says Caren Cooper, coeditor of the journal Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. In other words, in the modern age, big data can drive big changes.
In Blacksburg, with the party showing little sign of ending, Edwards pauses in front of an ancient Greek statue. It’s about 2 feet tall, depicting a robed woman pouring water from a cistern. Edwards says he has forgotten the story that went with the sculpture. Anyway, now it has new meaning for him. “It’s been the story of my life,” Edwards says. “I have to keep working on water. And it just never ends and never ends.” Tomorrow, he’ll be back in his lab, waiting for another lightning strike.
Ben Paynter (@bpaynter) wrote about Monsanto’s non-GMO organic vegetables in issue 22.02.
This article appears in the June 2016 issue.