The Four Simultaneous Crises Unfolding in Flint

A water-treatment expert says there isn't one solution to the Flint water crisis, because there isn't one problem

Marc Edwards determined that the levels of lead coming out of 40 percent of the city's home faucets was higher than legally acceptable levels. Credit: Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/Zuma

When Virginia Tech professor and water-treatment expert Dr. Marc Edwards is asked the question "Who poisoned Flint, Michigan?" he doesn't beat around the bush.

"Flint residents were betrayed by the very people paid to protect them," Edwards says. "Career civil servants who not only did not do their job, but couldn't even fake like they cared about the Flint population. And also by the top... environmental cop in the region: the U.S. EPA."

He would know. It was Edwards who independently tested 280 samples of Flint water and determined that the levels of lead coming out of 40 percent of the city's home faucets was higher than legally acceptable levels. Edwards was assailed by officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — the civil servants in question — but was ultimately vindicated.

Now that everyone from President Obama on down has acknowledged there's a disaster in Flint, there's the question of what to do about it. According to Edwards, there isn't one solution, because there isn't one problem.

"There's actually four devastating things going on at once," Edwards says.

First, the lead issue: The threat of lead poisoning to the community is enormous, and it's worst for children under five. "Lead adversely affects every system in the human body, and the damage it does is worse the younger the exposure," Edwards says. Pediatricians in Flint have already determined that between 4 and 6 percent of local children are testing at lead levels that are higher than the law considers safe, up from 2.1 percent before the switch.

Second, the legionella issue: This is actually two issues — one known, and one not. Besides being contaminated with lead, the Flint River water being piped into residents' home was not being treated for bacteria, which means bacterial diseases are on the rise in Flint. One of the ways experts like Edwards know this is by the number of local cases of Legionnaires' disease: at least 87 cases, including at least nine deaths, over the past 17 months. But the problem of bacteria is likely larger, because the government is only required to track cases of legionella-related illnesses — other bacterial illnesses also caused by the river water are likely going unnoticed.

"For example, there is one NTM, which stands for nontuberculous mycobacterial infection, that creates a pulmonary infection that also can come from water, but if there was an outbreak we wouldn't know it because it's not reportable," Edwards says.

The third problem is the damage done to the pipes: both city-owned pipes and the plumbing in residents' homes. "It all goes back to the failure to follow federal corrosion control law, and not adding the phosphate," Edwards says. As Rolling Stone writer Stephen Rodrick noted in his feature article on the crisis, the damage to city property alone is already estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Fourth, and finally, Edwards says, "You have a population that has essentially been traumatized by what has occurred, and they no longer trust anything that the state or the federal government tells them, even if it's important information that can protect their health."

This is an issue that could beget myriad others, because it relates to basic sanitation. "Relief workers are calling us, at Virginia Tech, and asking us to talk to residents who are refusing to bathe or shower because they are so scared and they don't trust what the state and federal government are saying about the water being safe for bathing and showering," Edwards says. "This is how far we have sunk; you can't go any lower."

How do you solve all of these problems? What do you do first? The expert is at a loss when it comes to prescribing fixes for the situation in Flint.

"I don't think there is a precedent for what's occurred here," he says. "There is not a simple answer. Once this trust has been broken, it's going to take a long time before it's repaired."