Lead in the Water and the Golden Rule

clean clear cold drink
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Recently, the town of Sandy, Utah notified residents that they couldn’t drink the city’s water (the problem has since been resolved). A release of undiluted fluoride into the water had resulted in lead and copper leaching from the city’s water pipes. City officials responsible for notifying affected residents didn’t do that until the contaminated water had been in their taps for days; residents notified the city that they were getting sick from drinking the water. The city had issued a statement only 24 hours before the “no drink” order that the water was safe to drink. Several people, including a 3-month-old baby, were sickened. And there is no safe level of lead in drinking water; it can cause neurological damage and other problems for children and infants, even infants in utero. Babies who drink formula, which is mixed with water, are especially vulnerable. The city was cited by the Utah Division of Drinking Water for failure to notify the public adequately and for exceeding safe fluoride levels. (See Amy Joi O’Donohue, “Utah City Delayed Notifying State, Public of Contaminated Water,” Deseret News, February 16, 2019, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900056140/utah-city-delayed-notifying-state-public-of-contamination-water.html)

Your city should be sending you a water quality report once a year, but in the case of emergencies such as the city of Sandy experienced, we must rely on city officials for appropriate testing and communication to the public. Tragically, the city of Flint, Michigan, experienced contamination of its water by lead and other dangerous metals in 2014, after an emergency manager appointed by the state tried to save money by switching the source of the city’s water from Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River. The Flint River water was extremely corrosive, and the city failed to treat the water (which would have cost about $100 per day); this resulted in lead and copper leaching from water pipes into the water. And city officials assured the public for 18 months, after residents began complaining about the appearance and taste of the water, that the water was safe to drink—even though they knew or should have known about the problem. Five officials have since been charged with involuntary manslaughter in relation to the water crisis in Flint.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, was seeing children with hair loss and rashes, and  their concerned parents. By comparing Medicaid-required lead levels in children taken before the water switch and after, she was able to show that lead levels in children’s blood had doubled and even tripled. The state attacked her results for a week before admitting she was right. Then the state started handing out filters and bottled water, but 18 months of lead exposure had already affected children in ways that may not be known for years. (See Sara Ganim and Linh Tran, “How Tap Water Became Toxic in Flint, Michigan,” CNN, January 13, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/health/toxic-tap-water-flint-michigan/index.html)

Dr. Mona, as she is called, wrote an excellent book about the water crisis in Flint and the investigation to uncover it, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City (New York: One World, 2018). One infuriating thing is that the problem probably would have been addressed sooner, or not come about at all, in a majority-white, affluent Michigan city such as Ann Arbor or Grosse Pointe. Another infuriating thing is that the officials in Flint, and to a much lesser extent the officials in Sandy, seemed more interested in covering up mistakes and saving money, and avoiding public panic (even though it was time for intense concern), than in saving families and children from drinking water contaminated with lead.

One lesson from these types of events is that those in responsible positions must concern themselves more with taking care of the people who trusted them than with hiding their own mistakes, keeping up appearances, or saving money at the people’s expense. It is all a matter of asking, “What would I want for myself and my family?” It’s the Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that man should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).

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