Does the world sometimes seem like one big lead-filled swamp of injustice? Do you want to help, but often feel awash in the constant stream of bad news pouring out of the TV like a roaring gush of rust-flavored sewage water?
That's why Cracked's running How To Help, a series dedicated to fixing the world's problems until they're all solved and we don't have to write this anymore. Last week we discussed Puerto Rico's rebuilding difficulties. Today's topic is ...
How To Help The People Of Flint, Michigan Have Clean Water Again
Donate to the Flint Water Fund, which is supplying bottled water to citizens in need.
Flint hasn't been doing well for a while. The birthplace of General Motors and once an economic boomtown, by the '70s, GM started abandoning the town, and it was followed by about half of the population. In their place came crime and drugs, earning the city the reputation of being one of the most dangerous places in the U.S. Then, at the brink of financial collapse, their drinking water became poisonous. And leave it to the real world to take the opening crawl for Mad Max and turn it into one of the most frustrating and depressing chapters in recent U.S. history.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Let's make one thing clear from the start: The residents of Flint live in an area literally called "The Great Lakes." While the rest of us will be fighting in the Water Wars of 2027 (Sponsored by Monster Energy), folks in this region will still have indoor pools. No, Flint's water crisis is a story of pollution and corruption, and not even an exciting one like in those 1990s political thrillers wherein a covert nuclear waste dumping conspiracy is exposed by a plucky young attorney played by Brendan Fraser or Casper Van Dien or whatever.
In 2011, during its last financial crisis, the state of Michigan decided to take over Flint's finances, installing a succession of emergency city managers to drastically cut costs. Part of its plan included switching the city's water supply from the safe Lake Huron (which belonged to Detroit) to their own, notoriously gross, Flint River. And if you get to the point where you have to cheap out on your citizens' drinking water, it's time to admit your societal model has failed, set fire to the tallest building, and use it as a beacon of incompetence while the entire population slowly retreats back into the safety of the dark wilderness.
After the switch, people started suspecting that there was something wrong with their water. It was the little things, like its brown color, its terrible taste, and how after drinking it you'd get rashes, vomit, and your hair would fall out. Everyone in Flint knew it was safer to grill up a sewer rat than eat any fish caught from Flint's stream, but state and health officials had promised them they'd made the water safe to drink. We'd say they were feeding the people bullshit, but that would've been about three contamination levels better than what was actually coming through their pipes.
It was that color of brown, though, because when the water came "through" their pipes, we mean it literally. The Flint River water was known to be highly corrosive, and the city's treatment hadn't involved any anti-corrosion agents (anything to save a buck), so the water was eating away at the old piping system, chipping away at the lead. This caused lead levels in the water to spike as high as 13,200 parts per billion. At 5,000 ppb of lead, water is classified by the EPA as hazardous waste.
Sarah Rice/Getty Images
To placate all these worrywarts too prissy to drink some death water, the state decided to fix the water being so dangerously chemical by flooding it with chlorine. This made the water so corrosive that the remaining GM factory refused to use it out of fear that it would damage the heavy machinery. But it was still fine to drink, though! Even Detroit Water got so worried about the people of Flint that it offered to hook them back up to the old system free of charge, but the state's emergency manager turned the offer down because all that clean water was still far too expensive.
What was a lot cheaper was to let the people of Flint get sick, and in some cases simply die. Early scientific tests already showed that the water was tripling the levels of lead in the blood of Flint's children, which is the kind of malicious event you shouldn't have to read about outside of a Magneto comic. The scariest invader, however, was a bacteria which causes a terrible kind of pneumonia called Legionnaires' disease. According to the official tally, Flint's water got 90 people sick and 12 killed from Legionnaires' between 2014 and 2015. But a recent investigation by Frontline claims the death toll might be much higher, as a staggering 119 people died of pneumonia during that time.
Finally, in 2016, Michigan pulled its fingers out of its ears and was forced to deal with the issue, warning the public to stay away from their water. And that's how the people of Flint have been living ever since. By now, many houses are already fitted with decent filters, but the city is always in need of more bottled water -- something the state stopped providing in April -- especially those families who still have rust-flavored Gatorade coming out of their shower heads. What it needs most, though is some goddamn decent piping -- a project the state will only complete by 2020. But even after Governor Rick Snyder makes the water clearer than his conscience will ever be, plenty of people in Flint will never trust what comes out of their taps ever gain.
For over 18 months, government officials kept repeating that the water was perfectly safe, and they would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling activists. It's because of journalists, scientists, and most importantly the determined citizens of Flint itself that the lead-filled tide was turned and some people are now being held accountable for their inaction. Criminal trials are starting against over a dozen people the district attorney has deemed responsible for the crisis, even throwing in charges of involuntary manslaughter. However, the trials keep getting postponed and don't feature any of the real people in charge. People like Rick Snyder, who'll be allowed to end his governorship unscathed and move on to a cushy private sector job. It really takes a special kind of slimy politician to get through a water scandal without getting wet.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to take away from Flint's water crisis is this: Don't for a second think this couldn't have been your town. This didn't happen on some faraway island or in a Third World country, but right in America's own backyard. "From every objective measure that is out there, Flint's water is like any other US city with old lead pipes," adds Virginia Tech's Siddhartha Roy, one of the researchers who brought the scandal to light. So take note and stay in the fight, because if you don't and your elected officials one day decide that your water looking and smelling like orc blood isn't their problem, you'll spend a really long time picking chunks out of your teeth after every brushing. And if that sentence isn't enough for you to take an interest in local politics, we don't know what will.
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It's not exactly a perfect solution, but even a reverse-osmosis filtration system could help with some of the drinking water.
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