The Science of Flint’s Water Crisis

[♪ INTRO] In April of 2014, under the control of an
Emergency Manager appointed by the state of Michigan to help the city
through an ongoing financial crisis, Flint, Michigan switched its water supply. For decades, the city’s water had been piped
in from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which got its water from Lake Huron and treated it. But in April of 2013, the decision was made
to build a pipeline and connect to a new system, the Karegnondi Water Authority. This would supply the city with lake water
that Flint would treat instead of Detroit, and was estimated to save 200 million dollars
over 25 years. In the meantime, as a sort of temporary fix
while the pipeline was being built, water would come in from the Flint River and be
treated at Flint’s water treatment plant. Now, 4 years after that switch, we know that
it damaged hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure, caused deadly bacterial
outbreaks that killed at least 12 people, and exposed thousands of children to high
levels of lead in their drinking water. There are places to learn about the story
of how this happened, was covered up, and was eventually recognized, and the underlying situations that caused these massive mistakes to be made. So let’s talk about the science of water. And how something as seemingly simple as a
switching to a different water source could lead to so many bad, but also seemingly unrelated,
outcomes. Humans have actually been using lead pipes
in water systems for hundreds of years, dating back to the ancient Romans. We eventually moved on to using other materials,
like iron. But in the late 1800s, engineers in the U.S.
were all about lead, because lead pipes were easier to bend around obstacles and were a
bit more durable than iron. People were suffering from lead poisoning,
but the public health risks weren’t seriously acknowledged until around the 1920s. And we gradually stopped making new water
pipes from lead. But in lots of cities in the U.S., like Flint,
Michigan, there are still several different kinds of metals in pipes for water. In Flint’s case, the pipes are made of lead
and iron. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t
have any sort of serious regulation about lead pipes until the Lead and Copper Rule
was enacted in 1991. It requires regular monitoring and action
plans if old lead pipes start becoming dangerous. So, all that to say, lead water pipes are
not that unusual, a 2016 study estimates that
there are still millions in use. And even though no amount of lead ingested
by a human is considered safe, maybe surprisingly, many of these
water systems are usually safe. A big part of the reason why is anti-corrosion
chemicals in the water, like orthophosphate. Orthophosphate helps lead and some other metal
pipes from corroding by forming a compound that makes a sort of protective layer on the
inside of the pipe. If that layer is patchy or missing, then electron-stealing
chemicals called oxidants, like dissolved oxygen gas, can react with the lead. And when that happens, the lead will dissolve
into the water and contaminate it. You’ve probably heard of that. It’s known as leaching, and it’s when
things get dangerous for people who need this water to drink or shower or do anything with
on their bodies. Flint, and it is unclear why besides possibly
cutting costs, did not add orthophosphate or any sort of anti-corrosion chemicals when
switching to Flint River water. Even though the treated water from Detroit
had had them. And because Flint was using iron and lead
pipes, both iron and lead ended up in the water. But that’s not the whole story. Not only were these pipes left unprotected,
but the water flowing through them also contained higher than average chloride levels. Research has found that chloride helps the
process of corrosion along. When there are enough chloride ions in the
water compared to some other ions, they start forming chemical complexes with lead and other
atoms. And these chloride complexes are soluble. So, basically, it’s another way that lead
can get into the water. Part of this too-much-chloride problem was
from the river water itself. Sodium chloride, which is just table salt,
would often wash into the river after being used as a de-icer on roads. But another part of it had to do with the
fact that, a couple of months after the switch to the Flint River water, there was also a
huge bacterial problem. The river water wasn’t just, like, extremely
dangerous, though. We know how to treat water. We put in disinfectants like chlorine, which can rip
open bacteria or mess with the molecules inside them. But it turns out that chlorine disinfectant
can react with metals from corroding pipes, especially iron, to become completely different compounds that do absolutely
nothing to control bacteria. So the disinfectants were made useless. Plus, more chloride ions ended up floating
around, which only made the corrosion process worse. And thus, the vicious cycle escalated. By August of 2014, there was a city warning
that E. coli and other typically gut-dwelling bacteria, collectively called fecal coliform
bacteria, were thriving in the water and could make people sick. The Flint treatment plant upped the amount
of chlorine they were using to try to kill off these contaminants. But because the pipes were already corroding,
it wasn’t working. Not only that, but all this extra chlorine
they were adding also reacted with some of the organic chemicals from the river water
to form disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes. And, researchers have found trihalomethanes
to be linked to health problems and even cancer. So not only was the chlorine turning into
a bunch of non-disinfectant chemicals, one of those was potentially a carcinogen. Trihalomethanes in the water quickly swelled
to above the national regulatory limit. So to try and fix that problem, the treatment
plant added coagulants that would react with the organic matter in the water to help them
filter it out. Specifically, they used a chemical called
ferric chloride. Which took care of the trihalomethanes, but meant they were adding
even more chloride to the water. As the pipes got worse and more chlorine was
turned into useless compounds, the elevated bacterial levels became deadly. Between April 2014 and October 2015, at least
12 people died and 91 people got sick from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, the
third largest recorded in U.S. history. Before the switch to the Flint River water,
there were only a handful of cases per year. Legionnaires’ disease is basically a really
intense pneumonia. It’s caused by breathing in water-borne
bacteria that infect the lungs so they get inflamed and lead to other symptoms. This outbreak was caused by a bacterium called
Legionella pneumophila, specifically the serogroup 6 strain, which isn’t usually detected in
the standard urine test for the disease. After some extensive studies, most researchers
agree that this chlorine inactivation at least played a part in letting these bacteria flourish. On top of that, some of the experts and investigative journalists think that there could have been more deaths than were officially confirmed, because of how tricky it can be
to diagnose Legionnaires’ disease. Some deaths caused by these bacterias could
have been attributed to pneumonia in general, and thus not counted. So, counterintuitive as it might seem, not
adding corrosion control also deactivated the chlorine disinfectant to basically undetectable
levels, resulting in tragic loss of life. In addition to all this, though, there was the ongoing
problem of metals leaching into the water supply. Which we definitely know was because of how
the Flint River water was treated. Because of all these chemical reactions, the
process by which lead and other metals got into the water was not slow and constant. Sometimes the pipes would leach metal slowly. But sometimes metal compounds, like the protective
layer that wasn’t being maintained, flaked off in little hunks, some of which were even
visible to the naked eye. The leached iron made the water look kind
of horrible and taste kind of rusty, but it isn’t a big health concern on its own. Lead is. But you can’t see, smell, or taste it in
water. A single tiny lead flake can take water from
safe, to far over the EPA’s limit of 15 parts per billion, which requires public action
to be taken. And besides randomly super contaminated samples
being right next to uncontaminated samples because of flakes, the protocols for testing
for lead can be manipulated to make it less likely to record how contaminated the water
actually is. Official EPA protocols for measuring drinking
water quality involves letting the water sit in pipes for at least 6 hours, and then collecting
it after a couple minutes. City protocols called for pre-flushing
the pipes for five minutes before letting them sit for 6 hours. And, according to experts, this pre-flushing
can sweep out initial bursts of lead particles so they’re not in the sample. Plus, people don’t just go turning on their
water every once in a while, so those samples aren’t necessarily reflective of what they’re
using and drinking. Even still, when the City of Flint tested
one resident’s water in February and March of 2015, they found lead levels at 104 ppb
and 397 ppb, far above the EPA’s action level. When researchers from Virginia Tech sampled
water from the same pipes at low, medium, and high flow rates, they found levels ranging
from 220 ppb to a whopping 13,200 ppb. And, to be totally clear about how intense
this is, a substance with more than 5,000 parts per billion of lead is considered hazardous
waste by the EPA. By September 2015, those same researchers
had collected and analyzed 252 water samples from various Flint homes. 101 of the samples had more than 5 ppb of
lead. And they estimated that 90% of homes had a
lead level below 25 ppb; 10% were above that. Which, and I can’t say this enough, was a lot of homes above that 15 parts per billion EPA limit for water. Protocols matter, y’all! So that’s how metals ended up in the water. No corrosion control and high
corrosive chemical concentrations exposed many thousands
of people to lead poisoning. And lead poisoning can cause incredibly serious
health problems. Lead interferes with a lot of different enzymes,
can cause cells to die, and can slip past the protective blood-brain barrier to seriously
mess with the central nervous system. We don’t know exactly how it interacts with
all those systems, but lead ions are chemically pretty similar to calcium ions, which our
bodies use all the time in lots of chemical processes. So that may have something to do with it. In any case, it’s incredibly detrimental
to human bodies and brains, in adults and especially in children. All of this was made worse by the fact that
the city of Flint has a water system built to deliver water to over 200,000 people. Since the population peaked at around that in
the 1960s, it has declined to less than half that. So in some areas, the water moved through
some pipes slowly or sat stagnant. As the Flint River water sat in the pipes
and the corrosive chemistry did its thing, metal concentration rose, disinfectant concentration
decreased, and bacterial growth increased. The city of Flint switched back to piping
in treated water from the Detroit water system in October 2015, after 18 months. And they’re adding in extra phosphate chemicals
to try to build up that protective layer again. But that doesn’t just fix the problem that
had escalated over that year and a half. The pipes have already corroded, as have plumbing
fixtures and water heaters of many residents. So while the gradual leaching is hopefully
going down, metal flakes may still be chipping off. Tests show that lead levels are down,
and that’s great news, but many residents have also, understandably, lost faith in the government agencies that are now
reporting that the water is safe. The city is now undergoing a massively expensive
process of replacing all of its lead pipes. A step that was taken to save money has ended
up costing far more money than it could have saved, not to mention lost health, and lost
lives. The way that science was ignored, unknown,
or even misused in this story is a lesson that we all have to live with, and one that
we at SciShow hope that we can learn from. Thanks to our patrons on Patreon who support
SciShow, so that our team can work on these complex topics that take a lot of research
and time to get right. We wouldn’t be able to keep our channel
going without their support, and also without everyone who
watches and shares our videos. If you want to help us keep making free, educational
content, you can go to [♪ OUTRO]

100 thoughts on “The Science of Flint’s Water Crisis”

  1. Why? The same reason we don't treat our water for bacteria, like those everywhere else… For the same reason we use lead pipes to bypass more efficient water filtration systems. The same reason we are the only city to not consider the ramifications of transitioning to a new water treatment system and what that would do to our infrastructure.

    It's Cheaper!

  2. Be great if you folks could do a related video about water filter systems like 0 water and brita. Do they do the job for lead well enough for drinking?

  3. Thank you for covering the science behind the Flint water crisis. It’s important to understanding that it was completely avoidable and the fault lies with poor administration and (I believe) criminal negligence.

  4. Trump will do a big fat nothing about the water crisis in Flint and other city's with bad water. VOTE BLUE !

  5. There was a private company in China that made baby formula. In the early 2000s, to save money, they started using melamine as a filler chemical, which is dangerous to infants. This caused the deaths of 8 people – 6 children, and the 2 CEOs of the company, after the government executed them for poisoning hundreds of thousands of people. This is something we can learn from. Rick Snyder and his Emergency Manager should both be hanged to set an example.

  6. My wife still suffering effects of this water crisis. We moved to where is considered a third world country in order to keep her away from toxic food and water and to clean all that poison out of her system.

  7. Another really good deep dive into this crisis is a podcast called As It Stands. There second episode check it out.

  8. To the narrator, do you have to study the chemical names as to pronounce them correctly?
    Reason I ask, is you breeze right through the dialog with no hesitation. Gotta give you a 👍.
    The Flint water problem really is a serious issue. I wonder if certain things wasn't already known about, before the swapping of water resources was done!

  9. call me a conspiracy theorist but I think theyre running a massive experiment on the population… you think after all these years they couldnt change the piping? LMAO yeah right. lead n phosphates are endocrine disruptors, google it…

  10. I wonder if Michigan will invest more in its universities now. Maybe tech schools won't cut it; we need people to be generally smart, not just competent for the job.

  11. I live about 30 miles from Flint . $nyder and $hutte need to be held accountable. The cover up was a horrible farce. The only bright side was it saved us from a presidential run by $nyder.

  12. A few minor corrections:
    1 In older city water systems, lead and copper pipes were used in places where the plumbing might be exposed to freezing temperatures, as the softer metals were able to survive freezing on without bursting from the ice expansion. Modern supply plumbing uses re enforced PEX (s flexible plastic).
    2 Road salt is calcium chloride, not sodium chloride. The corrosive effect, however is pretty much the sam.
    3 the Flint river is part of the drainsige system for several marshes.

  13. Heavy metals like lead also sit in fat cells in the human body, and continues to wreak havoc in the bodies of the people who are unfortunate enough to ingest it.

    There isn't a reliable way to test which pipes have lead in them; all they have are the samples themselves, which can vary wildly, for reasons stated in the video. They don't know which pipes to replace, and that's also extremely dangerous.

    AND, due to a drop in donations of bottled water, many are being forced to use the water in their homes. Child protective services require that a home must have a safe way to access clean water, but many of the people of flint that already have lower than average incomes can't afford to buy water, pay their water bill for unsafe water (!), and therefore, don't have safe water in their homes for their children to access.

  14. The water is fine. When I grew up there the allowable lead level was 5x as high as it is now. Get rid of the EPA. They aren't scientists, they're activists. Big difference.

  15. Did you just say bacterier? 4:23 I thought you were American. Only Brits end words with an R that should be ended with an A.

  16. I'm from Flint. What happened here was AWFUL. Before the switch people were joking about how nasty the water was in the river. There's a video of me and my friends on a bridge and on the riverbank making jokes. We never guessed it was going to be so bad.

  17. Thank you for reporting on this! I live in flint and can say the water hasn't gotten any better…all they did was take away water donations.

  18. So just like Chernobyl. Save money, ignore science, manipulate test results.

    Not surprised, in US money>people, and crimes of rich on poor go unpunished.

  19. Who is responsible should be prosecuted not shielded by the powers think of the money they got by endangering the people

  20. Jesus Christ wtf omg it was one screw up after another… there should be laws that nobody without advanced Science degrees should be able to handle these kind of situations involving water safety….omg all we heard about was the lead poisoning not this bacterial nightmare also….

  21. I lived in Flint from 1966 to 1985, we drank what ever water we did and were inflicted with horrible life changing abnormalities, that are never reported in the news. Many of us who lived near the water plants ended up with enlarged penises and larger biceps than average, yet we can never seem to win our case in court…jealous judges I say….

  22. Born and raised in flint. My children were being effected, high lead levels. Making my daughters skin break out and bleed. Moved out of flint 3 years ago. Love the explanation. 🙂

  23. Do you want to know why they switched from one water source to the other look up the time right around when Nestle was expanding its pumping operations to pump out more water so they could bottle it and sell it look where it was being pumped for they were going for a permit to increase the capacity of pumping from 4 million gallons a day to 8 million gallons a day therefore taking a lot more water that the current source of water Detroit was already on could not supply I'm sure there was some Backwoods Shady deal made between the politicians of Flint Michigan and the top brass at Nestle water Corporation and that's why they switched pure corruption and corporate money I have no proof of this but it is a very big coincidence

  24. If I had a well drilling truck and if I could bill the city of Flint, I would love to drill wells for people who have lead pipes and replace their lead pipes with pex pipes.

  25. This entire anecdote is a perfect metaphor for how the human race tries to solve problems. Which is by complexifying things rather than making them simpler.

  26. This shows exactly why bean counters should be kept out of decision making. Bet the people doing this have college degrees.

  27. Thanks for keeping to the science and away from politics. It is scientists and engineers that will help the people of flint. Not politicians, activists, or, ugh, artists.

  28. And I hope they all get convicted of manslaughter charges. All these people are dying and they tried to blame a single Hospital can you freaking believe that.

  29. We’re now seeing people in Newark, NJ and in some North & South Carolina cities, at the least, with the same problems. As the video mentions, there are a lot of lead pipes. And that’s (probably) why the issues in Flint have persisted for SIX YEARS. Babies born and poisoned at that time are now 6, if they lived, and nothing has been done. Go buy a water filter and learn how to chemically & physically purify your water, I guess. Since apparently the government doesn’t care about the people that provide its funding to exist…

  30. Detroit was gouging Flint with the cost of water to help cover bad policies in Detroit. This excessive surprise cost forced Flint to make changes in their plan for water. The root cause of the issue was failed Democratic policies and predatory politicians trying to cover their butts.

  31. What when worry a far-right-wing republican governor who push the switch down the peoples of Flint throat who didn't want the switch they did complain at those meeting at city hall ? but Trick Rick Snyder a far-right-wing A$$ hoe and friend and donate who got those big construction for that switch like new pipe ? and pipe going through town and county who do get pay for there land ? and peoples get pay off , we have 4 emergency managament from 2010 to 2014 and one of them twice they cap resign because of personal problem and going from one state job to another one.

  32. 3:13 , quite the contrary. It is very clear why . It is because they do not care about the minority population of Flint, MI. Not once did they consider their health, just as the health and well-being of the citizens of Newark, NJ, another area highly populated by minority groups, were of no concern to governing officials.

  33. You would think with all the water issues the government would impose more strict water pollution sanctions and testing. Also ground pollutants. I hear all the democrats talking about global warming air pollution however they still allow the corporations to use toxic chemicals for fracking because it's easier and cheaper in the short run but causes expensive long term damage. It pisses me off that these crooks allow this to happen so they can pad their pockets. I am not someone who thinks we need to shut plants down, ban petroleum vehicles or anything like that however I do believe in recycling and keeping our planet clean from toxic chemical waste and litter.

  34. My town’s water is pretty bad, but nothing compared to Flint’s. Anything that it touches grows calcium, for us. That’s why almost every single house or building has an RO system. If you go to Midland, Texas, don’t drink the tap water.

  35. Yep, I think my family should sue the city, because during the water crisis my little brother drunk some of the water and had a brain aneurysm! He could've easily died in his sleep – the paramedics said that if me and my family didn't react fast he would have, our family doesnt have a history of this either, I'm 100% sure it was the water. @ 10:01 my statement starts to make more sense

  36. The residents of Flint don't have to worry about terrorists poisoning their water supply. State Government Officials have already done it. The Flint water crisis began in 2014. I can hardly believe the state government hasn't resolved this problem yet. What's taking so long?

  37. Lmao they kept adding chlorine to the water because around here in Flint everybody thinks that the Flint River is super dirty but it's really not they always have ever since I was a kid. They were like this waters so nasty we can't even kill off the bacteria add more chlorine!

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