The city of Flint, Michigan, has just learned a hard and tragic lesson about the value of clean water.
In the winter of 2014, after years of escalating prices for the water it was purchasing from the Detroit drinking water system, Flint decided to change its water source to the Flint River.
It made this decision despite the fact that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had classified the Flint River source water intake as having a very high susceptibility to potential contaminant sources, its worst rating.
Almost two years later, Flint has discovered that, by saving money, it was poisoning the city's children.
The roots of this crisis are as old as plumbing itself. Over 2,000 years ago, the plumberii (literally, lead workers) of the Roman Empire began to lay pipes of lead to carry water because this soft metal doesn't rust and is easy to work.
Until 1986 when it was finally banned, lead pipes and lead solder could be found routinely in every major city in the United States connecting homes to drinking water mains, particularly in older cities, such as Flint.
The problem begins when corrosive water enters these pipes and dissolves the lead. One of the most important contributors to this corrosion is simple salt and, every winter, immense quantities of salt are spread on the Michigan roads, some of which finds its way into the Flint River.
After switching to the Flint River for its drinking water, the city tested for lead, taking over a hundred samples throughout the city. Oddly, it chose to test only in the summer and fall, not a time of year likely to reveal the impact of road salt.
These tests did not show elevations in lead levels in water. Subsequent tests have found lead in drinking water at up to six times the allowable levels.
When lead enters children's bodies, it poisons their brains, bones and kidneys. Unlike road salt, lead and its effects do not go away in the summer.
As a result, the city ultimately used its children's blood to test for lead in their drinking water. When recent tests revealed a doubling in the number of children with dangerous levels of lead in their blood, the city finally stopped using the Flint River.
According to a model developed by the world’s top lead researchers in 2005, the observed rise in lead levels would, on average, shave a point off the IQ of every child in Flint. The lifetime loss of income alone for the approximately 25,000 children living in Flint would be roughly half a billion dollars. This number does not account for neurologic disorders, adult hypertension, heart disease, stroke, kidney malfunction, elevated blood pressure and osteoporosis—all of which are also associated with lead.
As a society, we have forgotten what it means not to have clean water. Nothing is more essential to life and nothing is more undervalued in a modern society. As Flint struggles to deal with the nightmare of a city with no access to clean water, as its people scramble to find bottled water and to install filters in their homes to remove the lead, it is relearning this painful and costly lesson.
Like Flint, cities around the world, faced with growing populations, contaminated watersheds and water supplies made increasingly unpredictable by climate change, are searching for new sources of drinking water.
They would all be wise to study the disaster unfolding in Flint.
Robert D. Morris is an environmental epidemiologist and the senior medical adviser to the Environmental Health Trust and a leading researcher in the field of drinking water and health. He has taught at Tufts University School of Medicine, Harvard University School of Public Health and the Medical College of Wisconsin and has served as an adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and the Presidents Cancer Panel. He is also the author of the book, The Blue Death (HarperCollins), that depicts natural and man-made hazards present in the water we drink.