Climate

A ‘House Of Horrors’: Thousands Of Michigan Residents Subject To Contaminated Drinking Water

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Unsafe drinking water worries Flint, Michigan, residents.

Thousands of Michigan residents are being exposed to potentially contaminated drinking water that could pose threats to their health and well-being, residents and lawmakers said at a Wednesday hearing.

Members of both political parties and chambers of the state Congress invited residents from the Detroit area to voice concerns about the drinking water. Since withdrawing from the Detroit water system in April 2014, the city of Flint, which is about 70 miles northwest of Detroit and has a population of nearly 100,000, has used water from the Flint River for its residents, drawing criticism from many who say it is unsafe.

Safety tests conducted in 2014 and early 2015 showed high levels of TTHM or THM in the drinking water, violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. TTHM, or total trihalomethane, is a byproduct of chlorine disinfection. According to the EPA, prolonged exposure to or consumption of such chemicals can pose significant health risks.

The Flint River has a history of poor water quality due to industrial pollution and agricultural runoff, according to an assessment by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But efforts to remove pollutants and clean up the river have been successful in the past 40 years. Now, some are wondering if the problem lies in the city’s treatment of the water, which differs from its treatment of its previous water source, Lake Huron.

“I’m guessing it’s a combination of a big problem that started early, and then the treatment system,” said Lynn Thorp of Clean Water Action. Thorp cited pollution, contamination, coloration, and taste as problems contributing to Flint’s drinking water problem.

Many learned about the drinking water health violation through a federal notice sent to Flint residents in January. “We were not told for 10 months that our water was failing all the THM violation tests,” said resident Melissa Mays at the hearing. Mays organized a march in February to protest the city’s drinking water after noticing rashes and hair falling out.

Since the news of water contamination broke in January, some residents are speaking out against the city’s new water system. February protesters said the water was caustic and had forced them to buy bottled water to drink.

At the Wednesday hearing, residents shared stories of rashes and other medical problems after drinking the water from the river. One resident at the hearing said she couldn’t use water for laundry and had to take her clothes to a laundromat. Another said she wore gloves while cleaning dishes to protect her hands from the water, otherwise her hands would itch and burn.

In addition to the health risks, water affordability remains a concern of the Flint community. Resident Cindy Marshall told Michigan Live she spends close to $300 in water bills and bottled water per month. “I wish Flint officials would give us our Detroit water back,” she said.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department did offer to reconnect Flint to its water system in January 2015 after news of the contamination spread, but the city chose to keep drawing from the river. According to the Detroit Free Press, a city analysis concluded that rejoining the Detroit system would increase Flint’s costs by $12 million per year.

Residents demanded that officials find a solution to the city’s water problem, but so far, lawmakers have not put forth any specific plan or legislation to do so. Flint resident Nayyirah Shariff said at the hearing the drinking water problem had become a “house of horrors” and needed to be fixed.

Flint water is slowly becoming safer, but is still in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because one testing site out of eight still has an unacceptably high level of TTHM, according to Michigan Live.

While residents continue to pay high prices to consume unsafe water, members of Congress hope to find a legislative solution. “This is not a Detroit issue, a Highland Park issue, a Flint issue,” said Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) at the hearing. “This is a Michigan issue.” Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) hopes the hearing will serve as a framework for future legislation to protect the Flint residents’ right to safe drinking water.

Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.