Toward the end of last year, headlines blared news of the high levels of lead turning up in the blood of children in Flint, Michigan, a struggling industrial suburb of Detroit. Early coverage hewed closely to what had caused the problems in Flint itself—a switch in its water supplies, and the political and cost-saving machinations that drove that decision. But as we’ve learned more, Flint’s travails are yielding much broader implications.
These point further backward as well as forward in time, and far beyond Flint itself. Front and center among them are the questions raised about the environmental health of our society today, faced as we are with the legacies of a century and more of the massive use of lead. Recognized for centuries as a poison, the subtler ravages of lead have only recently become better known.
In the following roundtable, I and Amy Hay have gathered together reflections on Flint from six scholars—one engineer, two economists, and three historians—exploring these and related legacies. Waking up to Flint’s fuller ramifications, these contributors collectively show, demands the longer and wider perspectives that history-minded scholarship can bring to bear.
Susan Masten, a civil engineer at Michigan State, offers an especially well-informed overview of what exactly the Flint water crisis has entailed. Economists Karen Clay and Werner Troesken then look back at the poisoning epidemics that erupted as America’s cities first turned to lead pipes, and their own and other economists’ recent efforts better to assess the full extent of this early damage. Historian David Rosner’s piece, abridged from an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, situates Flint’s recent travails within this city’s longer struggle for economic as well as environmental justice. My own contribution, which is a shorter version of an essay in The Conversation, locates the Flint crisis as the legacy of choices made over a century ago to rely on this toxic metal for water pipes, and looks at the difficulties we’ve faced in grappling with the consequences of this decision. Finally, historian Chris Warren explores an intriguing parallel between how doctors have understood lead in the human body and how we can understand the lead that we’ve built into our environments. He suggests that this resemblance can inform the choices we now face about a way forward.
Our inaugural roundtable launches the new H-Envirohealth and appeared originally in the February 4th edtion of Edge Effects. (Our special thanks to Rachel Boothby, Nathan James Jandl, and Eric Nost.) It offers a foretaste of what this newest member of the H-Net family will offer, as the main digital and communications vehicle for a new scholarly network founded last year, the History of Environment and Health Network (HEHN). Amy Hay will serve as the lead editor. In addition to developing H-Envirohealth, HEHN plans to meet regularly and organize other activities at scholarly conferences such as the American Society for Environmental History and the American Association for the History of Medicine. To join in, we invite you sign up for H-Envirohealth by signing up at H-Net Commons. Once you’ve signed up, you can subscribe to H-Envirohealth and access other H-Net features.
Flint Water Crisis: What Happened and Why?
On April 16, 2014, the Flint Water Service Center (FWSC) switched from distributing drinking water from Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to treating water at their own facility in Flint. In accomplishing this, the source waters changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River. After the switch, residents complained about the color, taste, and odor of the water. General Motors Corporation also complained about the corrosiveness of the water toward their engine parts.
By August 2015, the water exceeded regulatory limits for the bacterium, E. coli, and three boil water alerts were issued in a 22 day period. As a result, the dosage of the disinfectant chlorine was increased, which resulted in violations for total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), byproducts formed from the reactions of naturally occurring organic matter. In March 2015, the city of Flint sampled resident Lee Ann Walters’ home, and found very high concentrations of lead in her water. Subsequent testing of 120 samples by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards found extremely high lead levels in the water in 24 additional homes.
So what happened? The red color of the water resulted from the corrosion of the iron pipes, and while FWSC took steps, such as flushing the water mains, the problems continued. Treatment for softening and turbidity removal, along with disinfection, reduced the alkalinity (the ability to resist a pH change upon the addition of an acid), decreased the pH by up to one log unit, and approximately doubled the chloride concentration of the water. Commonly used indices, which would have predicted corrosion of iron and lead pipes, appear not to have been used. And finally, while a corrosion control plan was required by the federal Lead and Copper Rule, neither was the water treated for optimal corrosion control nor was a corrosion inhibitor added.
As a result of this, blood lead levels (BLLs) in children increased significantly; in the area of Flint with the highest lead levels in the water, the BLLs in children tested increased by a factor of about 2.5. While the source water was restored to Lake Huron treated by DSWD in October 2015, and the concentration of the phosphate corrosion inhibitor was increased from 1 mg/L to 2.5 mg/L in December 2015, lead levels remain high. Data recently released by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) showed that approximately 5.9% of the samples provided by residents in January 2016 contained lead levels above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). Twenty-six premises had lead levels exceeding 150 ppb, the maximum level for which the point-of-use filters provided are rated. The highest lead levels measured exceeded 5000 ppb. In some premises, both lead and copper levels were very high. Based on the data provided by the MDEQ, it may take months for lead levels to reach a point where the concentrations of all samples are below the action level. Clearly, there is much to be done before the water crisis in Flint is over.
America’s First Great Epidemics From Lead in Water Pipes
Karen Clay and Werner Troesken
During the 1890s and early 1900s, epidemics of water-related lead poisoning occurred all across the United States and Europe. Looking at how and why they happened, how they were handled, and what their effects might have been provides an important backdrop for understanding the recent events in Flint.
One of the worst cases happened in Lowell, Massachusetts, after officials switched from one source of water to another that was even more corrosive. Within a few years, hundreds of Lowell residents who were drinking this water began to exhibit the unmistakable signs recognized in this era as lead poisoning, such as wrist drop and a blue gum line. In one fatal case, the poisoned individual had been drinking tap water that contained lead levels 1,300 times greater than the current EPA standard for more than two years. In England, not just the introduction of water from new sources but acid rain from industrialization and coal consumption helped draw lead into the water, causing further outbreaks.1
Lowell was not an isolated event in this time, just as water-related lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan and Washington, D.C. are not unique today. Lead service pipes, the pipes linking street mains to homes and buildings, were pervasive. Of the 50 largest cities in the United States in 1900, all but six or seven employed lead piping to some degree; it could be mandated by local building codes. Why? Though lead was not cheap, engineers chose it because it was durable, and in comparison to iron, less vulnerable to corrosion. They were right: most of those lead pipes in use in 1900 are still in use today. And they were right in another way, as well: only when water supplies became highly acidic or alkaline did lead levels in the water really surge.2
Historically, engineers did not fully understand this and so simply pointed to the experience of other cities where “lead pipes have been used safely … for years.”3 Given that, the logic seemed clear: “Lead pipes can be used safely here as well.” But a city with a chemically neutral water supply, which was the assumed baseline, provided a misleading indicator of safety for a city whose supply was highly acidic or alkaline. Moreover, into the early twentieth century, few cities regularly monitored their water supplies for undue lead levels, so problems only came to be discovered upon sudden mass outbreaks of lead poisoning. Even these only included adults; this period’s experts missed entirely the serious and long-term damage done to children. As a result, one of us has documented cities in the United States and England whose tap water, though with lead levels 10 to 800 times the modern EPA standard, was considered safe by observers at the time.4
A small but growing group of economic historians have begun to study and quantify the effects of water-related lead exposure on a variety of outcomes in this period, including crime, infant mortality, educational attainment, intelligence, and long-term labor market outcomes.5 The results of this research are startling. They suggest the use of lead pipes in areas with highly acidic water supplies increased infant mortality by 10 to 25 percent, and in some Massachusetts cities with unusually corrosive supplies, by a factor of three or four.6 Children who grew up in areas with corrosive water supplies and lead service pipes earned a lower wage later in life, had lower educational attainment, scored lower on military intelligence exams, were less likely to own a home in mid-life, and were less mobile.7 The effects were especially pronounced among lower socioeconomic groups.8 Effects this large might, at first glance, seem implausible. But if one considers what just how much lead was leaching into so many water supplies throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, then these consequences look far more tenable.
Flint, Michigan: A Century of Environmental Injustice
“Strikers at Flint March as Victors,” announced the headline in the New York Times in early February 1937. Workers were leaving “Plants, ‘Heads High,’ Singing ‘Solidarity’ and Greeting Families.”9 Down Chevrolet Avenue they marched, ending one of the most vicious strikes in American history. During the course of the previous month in the midst of the Depression, members of the nascent United Auto Workers had conducted a sit-down strike in the factories of General Motors (GM), occupying the Fischer body shop, and the mammoth Chevrolet and Buick plants. For 44 days, hundreds of workers had occupied engine production, chassis construction, and foundry works, threatened by thousands of National Guard troops and hired thugs who sought to stop the sit-in by any means necessary. Workers were beaten and shot at; supplies to workers inside the plant were cut off by Guardsmen who shut down roads into an 80-acre industrial area. Scabs were hired to sneak through windows, tunnels and passageways to disrupt those sitting in.