It’s A Shit Show Out There

Ground Control to Water Operators: You’ve Got Problems That Could Be Criminal

When you think of a water crisis, you might think of what happened in Flint, Michigan, but all communities are vulnerable and hundreds of communities are experiencing water crises right now.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the news from Flint about the new criminal charges filed against former Gov. Rick Snyder and eight other top officials and the class-action settlement.

Not only were thousands of residents, children, and business owners exposed to lead, legionella, and other contaminants when Flint switched its municipal water source and failed to treat the water properly, but the people in charge concealed and downplayed the risks associated with this contaminated water.

I first called out the problems in Flint in January 2015, a year before it became a media frenzy, because people from the community contacted me asking for help.

It’s no secret that the Flint water crisis continues and that these officials now face criminal charges for it. Their water contamination crimes had permanent impacts and led to lives lost.

But here’s the thing: ongoing infrastructure issues, lack of resources, misappropriated funds, and mismanaged water treatment all contribute to toxic contamination throughout the country. Flint officials are not the only ones who have tried to cover it up.

The Dirty Truth

I’m calling it a shit show because so many people are involved and these issues boil down to how we control the dirt in our water systems.

To understand what I’m talking about here’s a super brief explanation of water treatment:

Our drinking water comes from many natural water sources, such as lakes, rivers, and streams, which generally contain organic matter—leaves, dirt, fish excrement, and so on. This is why we add chlorine to water. It’s a highly effective water treatment method we’ve used for more than a hundred years and kills most potentially harmful organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Before chlorination, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea outbreaks were common in cities across the world. Treating the water helped reduce these health problems.

In 1974, scientists discovered that chlorine could react with naturally occurring materials in the water to create what are called disinfection byproducts (DBPs). Many of these DBPs have been shown to cause health issues like cancer, including trihalomethanes (THMs), a group of chemical compounds, and haloacetic acids (HAAs).

Seeing is Believing…

You can look up your water system when you enter your zip code into the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.

Do you see chloroform, dibromochloromethane, bromodichloromethane, bromoform, bromate, or HAAs above their health guidelines? These are DBPs.

The amount of chlorine (and other disinfectants) used to treat drinking water matters. Too much or too little can cause problems right at your tap. When officials lose control of the dirt, they can lose control of the system. The EPA knows it and regulates DBPs in drinking water, yet so many communities continue to suffer.

It’s not just my opinion, here’s published research that says, “In the aftermath of the Flint lead crisis, there is an urgent need to assess the current state of U.S. drinking water. However, no nationwide assessment has yet been conducted on trends in drinking water quality violations across several decades.”

Along with serious lead issues in the water, Flint also had DBP violations noted in the Consumer Confidence Report in 2014. (Flint changed their water source in April 2014).

The Water Smells Like Sewage in Illinois

Jennifer Campbell is a labor-and-delivery nurse and mom who lives in Sycamore, Illinois.

Located in Dekalb County, Sycamore is a little more than 50 miles west of Chicago and about 30 miles southeast of Rockford.

“This summer has been the worst, but we’ve had the odor for four years,” she said about the water at her house that she’s lived in for more than 16 years. “The odor is what started it all. It smells like sewage and petroleum mixed together.”

In 2016, she and her neighbors started to complain to the city about their water. But she said, they kept telling her to fix things at her home, such as emptying the water heater or draining it. Jennifer says she took the advice but the smell persisted.

“If I did laundry and dishes at the same time, the whole house would smell like our dogs had accidents in the house,” she said. “It was permeating, it was so bad.”

She kept calling and she said officials told her that they did have a water age problem in the area. In fact, the city’s own master plan from 2019 says it too.

“Water age, the duration that water is in the distribution system before being delivered to the consumer, is a strong indicator of overall water quality,” according to the report.

The average water age throughout the city’s system is three to six days, which means that water sits in pipes, allowing bacteria to build up. Hence, the smell.

The report also calls out the age of the system in general—more than 45 percent of the city’s distribution system is 50 years or older.

“The system has been identified as relatively fragile due to the age of the water main piping,” the report reads.

While trying to figure out why her water smelled so bad, Jennifer contacted several EPA-approved labs to test her water. One test came back with a lead level of 64.5 ppb. That’s disturbing!

While no amount of lead is safe, the EPA has set an action level of 15 ppb in drinking water.

The city’s EWG water report also shows issues with DBPs and radium.

Sycamore Speaks Out

Jennifer has spoken at city council meetings, called local EPA officials, and started a Facebook group Citizens for Clean Water Sycamore, which now has almost 950 members. In the group, members post photos of their water color (gray, orange, and brown), boil order notices, and discuss possible health problems related to the water.

Jennifer’s son Blake, 19, has suffered with many behavioral issues, learning disabilities, and more since he was young. At one point, she was told his symptoms were consistent with a brain tumor, but his MRI came back negative.

She’s sent him for evaluations with many medical specialists, who now believe the water has impacted his health.

“To hear my child sobbing saying ‘Mommy, daddy my brain is broken,’ is something no parent should hear from their child,” she said.

Illinois has the most lead service lines of any state in the country—with about half of them located in the Chicago area.

Lead is a known neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage and is most toxic to developing brains.

“Don’t just take what your government says to you as truth,” Jennifer said to me. “We believe that our government is there to protect us; we believe there are rules and guidelines in place to protect the people, but they really protect the governing bodies.”

Sycamore residents filed a class-action lawsuit in October 2020 against their city, alleging that it knowingly failed to maintain its water supply and ignored problems with its corrosion control treatment, causing discolored drinking water that smells like sewage. Cancer rates are high, and local residents report other illnesses and issues.

The city has denied wrongdoing but has asked for funds from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for a proposed project to replace lead water lines.

Back in 2017, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner mandated lead testing in elementary schools. That fall, Sycamore Community School District completed their testing and every single school detected elevated levels of lead.

That same year, more than 80 percent of New York City public school buildings in all five boroughs had elevated lead levels.

High lead levels were also detected in Portland, Oregon, classrooms in 2016.

In late January, residents in Newark, New Jersey, reached a settlement with the city for dangerously high levels of lead in their water. The city has agreed to replace 18,000 lead service lines. When you look up EWG water reporting for Newark, you can also see issues with DBPs.

All nine officials charged in Flint have pleaded not guilty.

More Thoughts on Flint

“What happened to the people of Flint is a terrible tragedy. Justice for Flint families comes in many forms, including holding state officials accountable for what they did to Flint. While I never prejudge the outcome of any criminal charges, I support the Flint water crisis investigation following the facts, wherever they may lead. No one is above the law.” -Statement from Congressman Dan Kildee

“Unfortunately during this tumultuous time, it doesn't seem that beating, killing or poisoning of poor, black or brown bodies is a crime in the eyes of the law and these wealthy, white politicians literally get away with murder.

These officials made the mistake of underestimating Flint's strength and will to fight. We know how strong we are. So we in Flint need to hold on to some hope that we will once again make history by holding those in power accountable for their actions, just like you or I would be.”-Melissa Mays, Flint water activist and mom (from her Facebook page)

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Mom, Flint pediatrician, and public health advocate: