Aging Pipes Are Poisoning America’s Tap Water

In Flint, Michigan, lead, copper, and bacteria are contaminating the drinking supply and making residents ill. If other cities fail to fix their old pipes, the problem could soon become a lot more common.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/dont-drink-the-water/399803/ ALANA SEMUELS

FLINT, Mich.—Melissa Mays looks around the emergency room at a frail, elderly man in a wheelchair and a woman with a hacking cough and can’t quite believe she’s here. Until a few months ago, she was healthy—an active mother of three boys who found time to go to the gym while holding down a job as a media consultant and doing publicity for bands.

But lately, she’s been feeling sluggish. She’s developed a rash on her leg, and clumps of her hair are falling out. She ended up in the emergency room last week after feeling “like [her] brain exploded,” hearing pops, and experiencing severe pain in one side of her head.

Mays blames her sudden spate of health problems on the water in her hometown of Flint. She says it has a blue tint when it comes out of her faucet, and lab results indicate it has high amounts of copper and lead. Her family hasn’t been drinking the water for some months, but they have been bathing in it, since they have no alternative.

 “It set off a train wreck in my system,” Mays told me, sitting in the emergency room. Later, doctors would put her on beta blockers after finding problems in the arteries around her brain.

In the past 16 months, abnormally high levels of e. coli, trihamlomethanes, lead, and copper have been found in the city’s water, which comes from the local river (a dead body and an abandoned car were also found in the same river). Mays and other residents say that the city government endangered their health when it stopped buying water from Detroit last year and instead started selling residents treated water from the Flint River. “I’ve never seen a first-world city have such disregard for human safety,” she told me.

While Flint’s government and its financial struggles certainly have a role to play in the city’s water woes, the city may actually be a canary in the coal mine, signaling more problems to come across the country. “Flint is an extreme case, but nationally, there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure,” said Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University who has followed the case of Flint. “This is a common problem nationally— infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.”

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