Getting the Lead Out

It is astounding that decades after we removed lead from gasoline and paint, there is still lead in the water supplies of many cities around the world. Lead pipes older than today’s senior citizens still supply water to millions of people. In the U.S., the problem extends far beyond Flint, Michigan. Water systems in all 50 states have shown excessive levels of lead. The EPA has published information about lead in drinking water. If you’re concerned, you can request a report from your local utility and have the water in your home tested, but these avenues may or may not yield reliable results.

January 5, 2017 marks the anniversary of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder belatedly declaring a state of emergency, so Flint is again in the news. A year after media broadcast the crisis to the public, however, donations that poured in have slowed to a trickle, and the residents of Flint are still drinking bottled water.

Progress has been made in Flint. Around 600 water pipes have been replaced, which may sound good except that almost 30,000 lead pipes remain. Residents no longer get water from the contaminated Flint River, and the city has added corrosion inhibitors to limit the amount of lead that leaches into the water supply, but the water is still not safe to drink without filtration, and many don’t trust the filtration systems. The residents of Flint are likely to rely on bottled water for the foreseeable future. This may be good news to bottled water suppliers, but it’s not a good long-term solution.

Water is bottled in plastic bottles, the production of which comes with its own set of problems. General Motors, which benefited from clean water for its industrial use in Flint while the residents of Flint suffered with lead-tainted water, has made efforts to do the right thing. In August 2016, the company expanded its water bottle recycling program to include millions of bottles from the Flint community. The bottles are finding new life as fleece used in engine covers and air filters for GM cars. This is a nice example of material reuse, but the fleece is used in another product that makes a more compelling story.

GM has donated fleece to an organization called The Empowerment Plan, which is using it to make 6500 coats for the homeless. These coats transform into sleeping bags, but that is not all that makes them especially valuable. The Empowerment Plan employs previously homeless people to sew the coats, teaching them skills they can use to pave their way toward more lucrative careers. GM has also donated a significant amount of cash to the organization.

It is encouraging to see this type of effort, but much larger infusions of cash will be needed to solve the global water crisis. In the U.S. alone, the price tag is on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars to ensure that all Americans have safe drinking water. Replacing miles of water pipes is an expensive undertaking. I hope it doesn’t take the poisoning of residents of some affluent town to convince the government that ensuring a safe water supply should be a national priority.

For updates on the crisis in Flint, see this article from UC Irvine history professor Andrew Highsmith. Highsmith is somewhat of an expert on the history of Flint, having used the city as an example of changing demographics and racial injustice in his 2015 book Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis. I haven’t yet read the book, but it’s on my list. I find it interesting that almost all the Amazon reviews on the book are from people who grew up in Flint, either on the black or white side of town. I have a feeling that the book contains valuable insights even for those of us who have never been to the state of Michigan. Once I read it, I will let you know.