Science, Now + Beyond

Avoiding public water is making Flint residents sick

Using the water will make you sick, and so will not using it.

After the die-down in media coverage and dialogue around the Flint water crisis, you’d think the water had been treated, the problem fixed, and the people given some peace of mind. The reality is, more and more people are contracting preventable diseases because of distrust in the government and the sanitation of the city as a whole.

The whole country had its eyes on Flint early this year because of the brown water that residents had running in their homes. Drinking it. Cooking with it. Bathing in it. Relief efforts brought in bottled water to provide some aid to families in immediate need, but despite the good faith bottled water just isn’t a sustainable solution. The water pipes have been damaged beyond repair. A lot of people outside of Flint are surprised to hear that the issue hasn’t been fixed. Those on the inside, though, are well aware. And because of that, they’re not washing their hands with their sinks.

Shigellosis is a bacterial sickness caused by an (accidental) ingestion of fecal matter. It manifests itself in the gastrointestinal system, symptoms being diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, cramps, and the appearance of mucus and/or blood in stool. Shigellosis has been on the rise in Flint. The county that the city falls within, Genesee, has seen 85 cases of shigellosis year-to-date. In Michigan, the next largest number of cases is just 49 – a massive gap for a disease that is so easily prevented.

So why are people getting shigellosis? The water in flint is still brown and it still has a dangerously high lead content. The problem was never fixed – the news story just lost momentum. Flint residents, who have essentially been forgotten about, more often than not simply do not trust the water that’s coming out of their faucets. I mean – how can they?

People have drastically changed their personal hygiene habits, including using baby wipes to clean their hands after using the bathroom instead of using faucet water. The danger in using the baby wipes is that the wipes aren’t chlorinated, making them ineffective when it comes to killing the bacteria responsible for shigellosis.

The cause of brown-colored, lead-contaminated water running in the homes of nearly 100,000 residents starting April 2014 was a switch from a Detroit water supplier to the Flint River. The biggest mistake was that the authorities never checked the corrosivity of the River’s water. It turned out to be incredibly high.

New York Times, comparison of a nail exposed to Detroit vs. Flint water
New York Times, comparison of a nail exposed to Detroit vs. Flint water

The water destroyed the metal of the water pipes. Most notably, lead-levels began skyrocketing. After almost two years of community complaints evolving into national attention, in October 2015, the city switched the water source back over to the Detroit water supplier, which is now called the Great Lakes Water Authority, that had been providing water prior to the River. The damaged pipes were not replaced, leaving the problem of already-corroded metal coming into contact with whatever new water was going to pass through it.


Flint made news early in 2016 because despite what were claimed to be the best efforts of city and state officials, the water never became safe. It was still off-color. It still smelled. The lead content went down slightly (from at one point being almost 7 times the EPA’s limit). Children, most susceptible to lead poisoning out of all age groups, were starting to show raised blood-lead levels (which can cause permanent brain damage, including learning and behavioral problems).

The bottom line is, Flint’s water is not safe. Water – a basic human right – is being denied to these people. Comprehensive solutions (like rebuilding the water pipes) could cost up to $55 million, which isn’t much when compared to the amount potentially going to be given to civilians in lawsuit settlements for lead poisoning. In addition to the health concern, Flint is a prime example of how a community loses faith in its leadership. After months and months of claims by high-up officials that the water was safe, yet people were clearly getting sick, something was finally done and it was too little, too late. Until a full fix is carried out, people will continue to get sick.