This week, Michigan officials announced that after the latest round of testing, Flint’s water now meets federal guidelines for lead. The EPA’s lead and copper rule says that when a water system has lead at levels of 15 parts per billion or more, steps must be taken to control the issue. Flint’s water now has 12 parts per billion, the state said.
But residents aren’t comforted by the news. It “doesn’t mean its safe,” countered resident Melissa Mays. “The only safe number is zero.”
The good news is that, according to Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards, who helped uncover Flint’s lead crisis in the first place, the state has followed the right testing procedures, and therefore Flint’s water is indeed in compliance. “There’s no question that the state has done a program that meets the requirements of the EPA lead and copper rule, and the results are in the range of other cities with old lead pipes,” he said.
But no officials have said the testing results mean the water is safe to drink from taps. Instead, they’ve warned it could be a year or more before that’s the case, because the lead pipes have to be replaced.
That means residents still have to rely on filtered or bottled water, something they’ve been living with since the end of 2015. The state is supposed to be ensuring that all residents have access to safe water free of cost, but on Tuesday federal judge David Lawson chided Michigan for failing to fully comply with his earlier order that the state and city deliver bottled water to all residents’ homes, saying he was “unimpressed” with the state’s efforts.
In the meantime, getting enough water to drink and cook consumes much of residents’ days. “It’s become a big part of life,” Mays said. Many don’t trust filters out of fear that it’s difficult to ensure they’re working properly, or that they won’t know when the filter needs to be replaced. “They malfunction so often that…we’re not willing to gamble with our children’s lives,” Mays said.
So instead, people rely on bottled water. Most families have to find a way to pick up water from the nine distribution sites scattered around the city, which are only open Monday through Saturday from noon to six. “People who work long days or two jobs, you miss it completely,” Mays said.
Most people have to go far out of their way to get to a site, which is even more complicated for those who don’t have access to a car. “What we’re seeing is people taking lunch hours to pick up water instead of eating,” she said.
And even those who can pick it up are having trouble getting it back into their houses. Cases weigh more than 20 pounds each, and the elderly, sick, disabled, and pregnant struggle to carry them. “If you drive around Flint and look at a bus stop or stop sign, you’ll see a case of water sitting there…because they can no longer carry it and had to set it down,” Mays said. “People just cannot carry these cases up and down.”
Flint residents are desperate to go back to life when they can trust water from their taps. They want to “stop feeling like outcasts to the world,” she said. “We don’t even feel like we live in this country anymore.”
And while Flint may now be in compliance with the federal lead and copper rule, it is widely seen as inadequate for protecting people all over the country from ingesting lead through their water.
“Everyone knows the lead and copper rule is not sufficiently protective, and meeting the federal law doesn’t mean your water’s safe,” Edwards said. What Flint’s tests show, basically, is “they have currently the same lousy water as other cities that have lead pipes.”
It’s a widespread issue. Somewhere between 3.3 million and 10 million lead water pipes are still in use. Lead solder is in pipes and joints in about two-thirds of the country’s homes, or about 81 million households. That doesn’t necessarily mean that water coming from these pipes is contaminated, especially since water systems are required to use chemicals that keep the lead from leeching into the water. But between 2013 and 2015, more than 3.9 million Americans were served by a water system that had lead levels above 15 parts per billion.
Mays and her fellow residents have other worries on their minds as well. Lead was not the only contaminant polluting Flint’s water, and she said that people are now concerned about bacteria that may be making people sick. For example, there was a spike in Legionnaires’ disease early last year, although the state decided not to test the water for the bacteria. Now, she says, there’s a wave of bacterial pneumonia. In Genesee County, where Flint is located, pneumonia deaths doubled in the year that the city was using water from the Flint River.
Meanwhile, residents are still fighting against having to pay their water bills, which at the start of the crisis were highest in the country. The state has been covering part, but not all, of the cost — and the announcement that Flint’s water meets federal standards means it will stop doing so soon. Mays said that because so many residents have stopped paying their bills, the state is now forcing the city to send out shutoff notices.
Michigan’s announcement about the level of lead in her city’s water, therefore, brings Mays little consolation. “It means nothing, it means literally nothing,” she said.