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Does Flint have clean water? Yes, but it’s complicated.

City of Flint Water Plant
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The Flint water crisis has had serious consequences. But officials now consider the city's water safe.

Five years ago, the city of Flint switched its water to the Flint River. Citizens soon complained of dirty, foul-smelling water. Doctors found evidence of high lead levels in children. Outside researchers proved the city’s water (because of a lack of corrosion control) was corroding pipes, bacteria levels skyrocketed, and thousands of people were without clean water.

That began five years ago. Now, many people still say that Flint, Michigan doesn’t have clean water.  

Abdul El-Sayed, Jonathan Van Ness, and Alyssa Milano tweets
It's common for politicians and celebrities to claim that Flint still doesn't have clean water.

The problem is, those claims are misleading. 

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As a city, Flint’s lead levels have tested well below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion since 2017. The latest test results from January 2018 found four parts per billion in the 90th percentile of the highest risk homes. For comparison, at the height of the crisis, those homes were testing at 20 parts per billion on average.

As a result of the crisis, Flint’s drinking water system has become one of the most closely monitored in the country. And a new lead and copper rule means that Michigan now has the strictest water standard in the nation.

Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

At this point, Flint's lead levels are better than some other Michigan cities. Over the last two years, Benton Harbor, Romulus, Hamtramck, Parchment, Houghton and the villages of Lawrence and Beverly Hills each exceeded the EPA action level for lead in drinking water, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Michigan also now has the toughest drinking water standards in the country, and requires vigorous testing.

Read more: Ripple Effects of the Flint Water Crisis

That doesn’t mean there still aren’t problems in Flint.

The city switched back to the Detroit water system in 2015. But the damage had already been done, and the city’s lead service lines continued to leach lead into residents’ drinking water.

Since 2016, crews have inspected more than 20,000 service lines, replacing roughly 8,000 lead and galvanized pipes. By the time the work is done, nearly every line in the city will have been inspected or replaced.

Until the replacement work is finished, people have been advised to continue using water filters provided by the government. However, that recommendation is not unique to Flint. The EPA recommends that water filters be used in homes that could have lead lines, which applies to many U.S. cities. Learn how to find out if your home has lead lines here.

There have also been bureacratic complications. 

In August 2019, the state of Michigan warned city officials that Flint was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because it failed to test water at enough homes with lead service lines or lead plumbing fixtures. A spokeswoman for the city told MLive that Flint officials say that is because the state "did not provide the city with the final approved sampling methods" in time.

Flint was required to test water from a minimum of 60 high-risk homes from January to July 2019. But as the city works to replace lead service lines, there are fewer and fewer homes that meet that standard.

The city submitted 35 valid tests, and 30 invalid sample results. But those tests were invalid because the samples were either taken after a home's lead service line had been replaced, or before excavation showed the service line to be copper. 

Residents remain skeptical

Despite assurances from government officials and outside experts, many of Flint’s residents will not drink the water. Their skepticism isn’t without justification.

When the crisis began, state and federal officials repeatedly denied that there was any issue with the water, despite https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34Q6ZXnKDA4">clear evidence that there was. Later, officials manipulated test results, downplayed the problem, and lied to residents.

As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reported:

"The tests were bad enough that [in July 2015], they should have informed the public about the broad lead risk, but that’s not what happened. Instead, state and city officials kept telling residents there was no lead problem in Flint’s water; that this EPA report was wrong; that the report was written by a 'rogue employee.'"

The consequences of the crisis are ongoing.

It is still unclear how much the high lead levels affected children's mental development. The Legionnaires' disease outbreak that coincided with the crisis led to 12 deaths, and residents say they are still fearful of bacteria in the water, although levels are largely back to normal.

Because of their concerns, many Flint residents still rely on bottled water donations. The state ended free distribution last year.

For the people of Flint, it may be years before the water crisis is a memory.

This post was updated on August 21, 2019 at 11:50 a.m.

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Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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