The Flint Water Crisis: A Special Edition Environment and Health Roundtable

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. We’ve also embedded below a recording of “The Flint Water Crisis: A Panel Discussion” at Michigan State University, held on November 19, 2015. The discussion features the voices of Flint’s community activists and first-person accounts of their experiences.


Today’s roundtable in Edge Effects is a special edition of what will become our inaugural roundtable for the launching of a new H-Envirohealth next week. 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?

Susan Masten

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

David Rosner

“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.

‘Air View of Chevrolet Motor Co. Plant, Flint, Mich.’, c.1930s, by Flickr user Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy… Harrison, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reading the article on childhood lead poisoning by Hanna-Attisha et al.10 in the February 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health reminded me that GM not only tried to defeat its workers, but also the environment in which they, and all of us, live. The latter never had chance to organize and resist. Linked by roads, rivers, and streams by the 1930s, Flint and the area around it had become an industrially-polluted landscape probably as bad as anywhere in the world. By 1936, the car industry had become very dependent on lead. It went into their batteries and welding, paints, lacquers, enamels and other finishes, as well as the gasoline GM cars depended on. As any old car enthusiast knows, when refinishing an old car, make sure to wear a mask. Huge amounts of lead and other toxins were pumped into the air, water, streams, and ground in and around the mammoth car factories in Flint and other Michigan cities. It is unlikely that anyone living in or near Flint then—or today—could escape the impact of unrestrained pollution. By the Great Depression, lead was to GM as corn was to the Midwest.

The indignities and bodily insult that today’s children face in Flint are horrifying. But, even more horrifying is that this city and its children have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. A look at the maps accompanying the Hanna-Attisha et al. article is unsettling for the historian: the affected children are those that live in the old industrial heartland of the city, around Chevrolet Avenue, which is the route workers marched on following their victory in 1937. Clearly, the Flint River (with its heritage of pollution), the pipes and plumbing (aged as they are), and lead paint (peeling from old dilapidated walls) are insults enough.11 GM and their workers are gone, but the environment remains, and it is time for Flint’s citizens to remember their earlier struggles and “March as Victors.”

The author would like to thank Alfredo Morabia for his helpful suggestions. The original, longer version of this piece is available here.

Piping as Poison: the Flint Water Crisis and America’s Toxic Infrastructure

Christopher Sellers

As the crisis over the water in Flint, Michigan rolls on, we’re learning more and more about the irresponsibility and complicity of officials and politicians in charge. The mix of austerity politics, environmental racism, and sheer ineptitude makes for a shocking brew, yet the physical conditions that have made it literally toxic for Flint residents are neither as exceptional nor as recent as much of the media coverage suggests.

Flint shares an historical legacy of lead water pipes with thousands of other cities, suburbs and towns across our country, and most likely this is not the first time, even in Flint, that these pipes have conveyed tiny amounts of the toxin into homes and children.

When many municipal water systems were being built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Clay and Troesken explain, for engineers, lead pipe seemed superior to concrete or iron (the alternatives at the time). Doctors offered virtually no resistance to this decision. After all, they themselves were turning to lead to treat diarrhea or trigger abortions. They recognized only those symptoms of lead poisoning that by today’s standards seem extreme: the severe stomach aches, muscle weakness, kidney failure, seizures and even death that can ensue when lead in the blood rises past 60 micrograms per deciliter—12 times the current standard.

How standards for lead in water and blood got tighter as we learned more. Graph by Chris Sellers.

How standards for lead in water and blood got tighter as we learned more. Graph by Chris Sellers.

While lead pipes did occasionally produce “epidemics” this dramatic, health officials remained far more worried about diseases like typhoid, which they knew piped-in water could prevent. As a result, as much as half of the water pipes laid in America’s burgeoning metropolitan areas during the early twentieth century were made of lead. The health and behavioral effects of lead from the early to the mid-twentieth century, summarized by Clay and Troeksen, were likely enormous.

Lead pipe made up a relatively minor portion of the burgeoning flow of this toxic metal into early twentieth-century factories, homes (through paint pigments), and automobiles (through leaded gasoline). That we subsequently came to know so much more about what lead can do is thus an important part of this story. Over the past 30 years, the CDC’s recommended blood levels for lead in the young have dropped precipitously, with no level now acknowledged as really safe.

With greater knowledge of lead’s damaging effects emerging over the 1960s and 70s, a concerted campaign against lead got underway. A ban on its usage in paint in 1978 and a phase-out from gasoline into the 1980s have had considerable impacts, yet regulators have struggled to contain the continuing danger from drinking water.

After an EPA study in 1986 showed one in five of the nation’s drinking water systems carried more lead than considered safe, Congress then passed a new Clean Water Drinking Act which finally banned the use of leaded pipe and high-lead soldering. The EPA implemented it through a 1991 Lead and Copper Rule that required “high-risk residences” to be monitored, with further measures if ten percent of households exceeded unsafe lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in their tap water. Flint is only the latest city to have slipped through the cracks of these rules.

An estimated three to six million miles of lead pipes across our country still carry water, and most all of them are vulnerable to similar dangers, whether at the hands of short-sighted bureaucrats or politicians whose ideology or opportunism leads them to dismiss well-established science.

The best solution would be to replace our lead lines systematically and proactively, not just one crisis-beset city at a time. Until we do so, it’s a safe bet that more Flints lie on our horizon.

The original, longer version of this piece is available here.

Of Pipes and People

Christian Warren

America’s built environment is lead-poisoned. Historically, our homes and office buildings, fields, bridges, and water pipes have undergone what—if they were human bodies—today’s doctors would not hesitate to term “chronic lead absorption.” Episodes we’ve seen of actual lead poisoning in people, of which the tragedy in Flint, Michigan is but the latest, divulge this underlying, ever-present danger.

A half century ago the lead industry and its scientists convinced us that chronic absorption of this toxin was not so bad, that usually “beautiful protective mechanisms of the body” (as the industry-funded clinical physiologist Joseph Aub put it) would perform “their assigned roles” by sequestering this lead safely in our bones. Of course we now know that this absorbed lead produces an invisible but incessant slow-drip of toxic interference with our body’s inner workings, from calcium metabolism to neural function.

How lead plumbing got pitched; National Lead Company ad from 1920s.

How lead plumbing got pitched; National Lead Company ad from 1920s.

The lead in our environment comes, in large part, from the lead industry’s historic hard-sell of what they referred to as “the useful metal.” A National Lead Company ad from the 1920s, pictured above, touted how lead in plumbing “Helps to Guard Your Health.” The industry’s campaign succeeded in incorporating lead throughout the infrastructure supplying our drinking water: in supply lines, drainage pipes, and water towers and storage tanks painted with lead pigment, inside and out. The amount of lead that leached into the water, we were assured, was insignificant.

This “bone-bound” lead, built into our environment, stirred much less attention for much of the twentieth century than the acute assault on our environment by house paints and leaded gasoline. By the 1950s, the general outline of the “silent epidemic” of deadly childhood “lead paint poisoning” was emerging. By the mid-1960s we were awakening to the fact that burning leaded gasoline produced a miasma of highly bio-available lead oxides into our atmosphere. Over the following three decades, in the wake of a prolonged movement aimed at better understanding and addressing lead’s risks, blood-lead levels plummeted—truly a great public health achievement. But the recent calamity in Flint makes it clear that our old leaden infrastructure retains a deadly potentiality, ready to release this toxin into our children’s bodies at the slightest perturbation of the status quo.

The analogy between bricks-and-mortar and blood-and-bone breaks down on questions about a cure for our lead woes. For poisoned people, medical interventions are ineffective below a certain level of lead absorption. At this point, today’s guidelines sound like those of 1965: avoid further exposure, and pursue a healthy diet and lifestyle so that the body’s “beautiful protective mechanisms” can lock the remaining lead in the deep tissues. For the built environment, on the other hand, complete deleading is technologically feasible—a “moon-shot” scale program, to be certain, but one with economic and social benefits lasting generations.

Economics produces hard choices, however. Do we concentrate on reducing the highest exposures or address the underlying problem? Lead paint remains the biggest single source for children with clinical lead poisoning. But for every child with a blood lead level over 20ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter) there are 30 or more children with much lower, but still harmful levels, who receive upward of 20 percent of their lead exposure from water. As the elimination of leaded gasoline has shown, universal solutions, affecting those at lower as well as higher risk, pay the biggest dividends. Deleading America’s water pipes is such a universal improvement. But while we wait for a “moon shot for lead,” we have to work with what we have. We need to fund regulatory agencies to maintain our water systems and prevent incompetent “accidents” like Flint. We need to grease the wheels of our infrastructure’s “beautiful protective mechanisms.” For now, they’re all we’ve got.

Featured Image: Flint River Bridge in 2010, by Andrew Jameson, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Amy M. Hay received her Ph.D. in History from Michigan State University. She teaches in the Department of History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Her areas of research and teaching specialization include twentieth-century American history, American women’s and gender history, and medical and environmental history. Her current book manuscript uses Agent Orange as a lens to investigate the use of herbicides as a means of international and domestic Cold War environmental containment. WebsiteContact

Dr. Susan Masten is a civil engineer at Michigan State University whose research involves the use of chemical oxidants for the remediation of soils, water, and leachates contaminated with hazardous organic chemicals. She has worked extensively on the development of drinking water treatment technologies, and holds a patent on a hybrid ceramic membrane filtration and an ozone-fluidized bed carbon systems. She has published over 100 publications and graduated over 50 MS students and 12 Ph.D students. Website. Contact

Werner Troesken is a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and faculty research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). He has been a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Julian Simon Fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. His research on water and lead has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. His books include Water, Race, and Disease (MIT Press, 2004); The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster (MIT Press, 2006); and The Pox of Liberty: How the Constitution Left Americans Rich, Free, and Prone to Infection (University of Chicago Press, 2015). WebsiteContact

Karen Clay is an Associate Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a Research Associate at the NBER. She is the author of The Evolution of a Nation: How Geography and Law Shaped the American States with Daniel Berkowitz (Princeton University Press 2012). Prof. Clay has published on waterborne lead and infant mortality and is currently working on a project on airborne lead and infant mortality. WebsiteContact

David Rosner, PhD, MPH, focuses on research at the intersection of public health and social history and the politics of occupational disease and industrial pollution. He has been actively involved in lawsuits on behalf of cities, states and communities around the nation who are trying to hold the lead industry accountable for past acts that have resulted in tremendous damage to America’s children. WebsiteContact.

Christopher Sellers is a Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is author of Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science (1997), Crabgrass Crucible; Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America (2012), and co-editor with Joseph Melling of Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World (2011). He is currently working on a transnational history of lead and petrochemical hazards in Texas and Mexico. WebsiteContact

Christian Warren studies the socio-cultural dynamics of health, class, race and the natural and built environment. He is the author of Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); his current book projects are a history of rickets and vitamin D deficiency, and the history of America’s move to the great indoors. He is Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. WebsiteContact

End
  1. Werner Troesken, The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.)  

  2. Michael Schock, “Causes of Temporal Variability of Lead in Domestic Plumbing Systems,” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 15 (1990), 59-82. 

  3. Troesken, The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

  4. Ibid. 

  5. See, for example, Karen Clay, Werner Troesken, and Michael Haines, “Lead and Mortality,” Review of Economics and Statistics 96 (2014): 458-70; James J. Feigenbaum and Christopher Muller, “Lead Exposure and Violent Crime in the Early Twentieth Century,” unpublished paper, NBER and Harvard University, 2015; Joseph P. Ferrie, Karen Rolf, and Werner Troesken, “Cognitive Disparities, Lead Plumbing, and Water Chemistry: Prior Exposure to Water-Borne Lead and Intelligence Test Scores Among World War II Army Enlistees,” Economics and Human Biology 10 (2012): 98-112. 

  6. Clay et al., “Lead and Mortality.” 

  7. Joseph P. Ferrie, Karen Rolf, and Werner Troesken, “Lead Exposure and the Perpetuation of Low Economic Status,” 2015, available http://www.pitt.edu/~troesken/vita/LeadAndThePerpetuationofLowSocioeconomicstatus7.pdf; Ferrie et. al., “Cognitive Disparities.” 

  8. Ferrie et al., “Lead Exposure”; see also Anna Aizer, Janet Currie, Peter Simon, and Patrick Vivier, “Inequality in Lead Exposure and the Black-White Test Score Gap,” unpublished paper, NBER and Brown University. 

  9. Porter R., “Strikers at Flint march as victors,” New York Times, February 12, 1937, p.1. 

  10. Hanna-Attisha M., LaChance J., Sadler R.C., Schnepp A.B., “Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: a spatial analysis of risk and public health response,” American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 2 (2016): 283-290; map on 287. 

  11. Michael Moore, Roger and Me [DVD] (New York, NY: Dog Eat Dog Films.)  

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