You probably know the rough outlines of this debacle: “Officials in Flint, Michigan, were looking for a cheaper source of water when they stopped piping in water from the city of Detroit in 2014 and switched to using the Flint River. But the money-saving move proved disastrous for residents. The water was laden with lead, bacteria and other contaminants, and it took the government more than a year to address the water crisis.” This is how Consumernotice.org, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Orlando, describes the origin story of a man-made disaster that impacted many of the 98,565 residents of this midwestern city six years ago. (Today, there are 94,867 residents.)
“The City of Flint and its residents have endured a lot of health issues and heartbreaking times,” observes Mark Eneix, third generation resident and owner of Glendale Construction and Glendale Realty, founded by his grandfather in 1922. “We have had multi-family rental housing in Flint since the early 1960s and still do today.”
Eneix says his firm’s properties were less impacted than many others in the area as they addressed the water situation early on. “The tenants were supplied with water filtration for drinking water and bottled water was supplied at various locations throughout the city. We did not run into any issues with the supplied filtration systems hooking up to our existing faucets, although we heard that some residents were not as lucky.” He heard correctly, though affected residents will likely benefit from a $600 million settlement being finalized between Flint plaintiffs and the State of Michigan.
Even without this consideration, Eneix says, “The outdated infrastructure system in the city is now being rebuilt and will allow for new growth and a healthier living environment for years to come. It has allowed property values to increase, where before it was difficult to sell any type of housing prior to the crisis, forcing property owners to sell cheap or abandon their properties.”
Health Effects of Lead
Property loss could fairly be described as adding insult to injury. The impact of the lead poisoning has particularly long-lasting effects, especially on the region’s children, and won’t be fully known for years, long after the settlements are paid out. For young people, the permanent damage can be serious: “Lead poisoning most often builds up slowly over time, due to repeated contact with small amounts of lead. A child’s body absorbs more lead than does an adult’s body. In addition, children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the effects of lead,” explains Karen Peterson, a professor of global public health and environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
“High levels of exposure to lead can lead to neurological and behavioral disorders, which are believed to be irreversible. Even in small quantities, exposure can cause kidney damage, speech and learning problems, delays in physical growth, and seizures.” Adults can be impacted by brain and kidney damage, as well as with potential reproductive repercussions, including miscarriages, abnormal sperm, risk to the fetus and high blood pressure problems for the expectant mother if expose to high levels of lead.
“In more severe cases of lead poisoning, a procedure known as chelation therapy can be used under the direction of a physician,” Peterson shares. “This treatment uses a compound known as EDTA, that binds to lead that has accumulated in the body. Even with treatment, it can be hard to reverse the effects of chronic exposure.”
Finding and Addressing Lead
“Given the severe consequences of lead poisoning for both children and adults, removing sources of lead from an environment is critical,” declares Peterson. Her suggestions for addressing it include washing hands and children’s toys; lead abatement for homes with lead-based paint; running cold water for at last a minute before using or drinking it if your home has older plumbing components, and testing your water for contaminants.
“If a homeowner discovers the presence of lead in their tap water, several point-of-use water filters can be used to remove it and other harmful contaminants,” suggests home expert Dan DiClerico with home project resource firm HomeAdvisor. (He notes that whole house systems, which attach to the main water line into the home, capture only larger sediment, like sand and iron, not lead and other smaller contaminants.
“Water filters are certified by NSF International and the American National Standards Institute. When shopping around, look for a filter that meets NSF/ANSI 53 standard, which was developed to check for lead. It’s tougher than the more common NSF/ANSI 42 standard,” he advises. Here are DiClerico’s comparisons of the various filter options for removing lead from tap water:
Carafe-style pitchers are inexpensive and easy to use, though they’re not ideal if your household goes through a lot of filtered water. And not all carafes are designed to remove lead, so check the label carefully. Most models cost around $30, plus another $50 to $100 per year in filter replacement costs, depending on how much water your household goes through.
These filters are designed to attach to your kitchen faucet, for easy installation (though they don’t work with all kitchen faucets, including pulldown models). Users can switch from filtered to unfiltered water with the flick of a switch. These filters are priced similarly to carafes, say $30 for the device and $80 per year for replacement filters.
Another easy-to-install option, these filters connect to your kitchen faucet, allowing you to filter large quantities of water without modifying the plumbing. But they also don’t work with all faucet types and they create clutter on the countertop. Devices typically cost between $100 and $250, plus $100 or so in annual filter replacement costs.
As the name implies, these filters are installed in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, where they tie directly into the home’s plumbing. Though experienced DIYers might be handle the installation, most homeowners will need to call in a plumber. On the plus side, these devices provide large quantities of filtered water without cluttering up the countertop. Undercounter systems are more of an investment, costing a few hundred dollars up front, plus another $100 or so in annual replacement filter costs.
Reverse osmosis filters
These systems are by far the most effective at removing a wide range of contaminants, including lead. But they take up a lot of space and are often very inefficient, wasting a few gallons of water for every single gallon that they filter. Unless your drinking water is very vulnerable to pollutants, reverse osmosis is probably overkill. Many systems start around $1,000, plus $200 in annual filter costs. Additional maintenance costs will likely be need as well to sanitize the systems.
Smart home technology companies are developing water and air impurity detection and mitigation systems that can potentially prevent future Flint crises from impacting families as severely, though at a significant financial cost.
Competition across this sector in the next five to 10 years could potentially democratize the cost and availability of such systems, and their tie-in to mitigating Covid-19 and future viral pandemics may also spur their adoption within the public health and philanthropy spheres.