Flint: How Citizen Science saved the citizens of Flint


The water crisis in Flint Michigan is one of the worst cases of gross negligence by a local government entity in recent memory. The failure to implement of federally required corrosion control to protect water pipes, combined with an attempt to cover up any perceived problems led to children being poisoned with lead.

Lead acts as a neurotoxin, and no level of exposure is considered safe. Had it not been for citizen science, it’s possible the water crisis would have been exacerbated, leaving more children with unsafe exposure to lead and years of complications.

Citizen science is science performed by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. In the past, citizen science has been used to in Beijing to provide air quality data, harnessed for ecological surveys, and to explore space. The rise of citizen science as a valuable resource for academic research has been celebrated, but perhaps it’s the potential for ensuring accountability that could provide the greatest utility. To understand the role that citizen science played in the Flint water crisis, we have to dive deeper.

When examining the recent water crisis in Michigan it must be understood that Flint was under tremendous financial stress from outstanding debt including more than $1.1 billion dollars owed in pensions. The city’s population was cut in half between 1970 and 2010 as the landscape of American manufacturing changed, reducing its tax base. The reduced tax base from both the loss of population and the decline in manufacturing created a funding gap for city services. When the Mayor of Flint asked that some of the city’s financial debt to be forgiven to free up resources for infrastructure improvement, he was denied.

While this could certainly be a moment to champion the value of indexing in public finance, the water supply itself was not part of the problem. The water utility had continued to produce a profit despite fiscal shortfalls. When the decision was made by a state appointed emergency manager to change the source of water it made fiscal sense.

By discontinuing the existing purchase of water from Detroit, and transferring to a regional water network, Flint stood to save millions of dollars. Where this attempt at fiscal responsibility began to fall apart was when as a stop gap, the city began to draw water from the Flint River and state officials then failed to respond to stakeholder complaints.

Shortly after the switch to using the Flint River as a water source, citizens began to complain about the water being brown and giving off a strong odor. The General Motors manufacturing plant in Flint switched their water supply when the river water was determined to be corroding their equipment. When citizens began to complain, the Michigan department of environmental quality began to assess the water. What followed has been widely recognized as a botched assessment. Issues with the number of samples, the sampling procedures, and even instructions given to citizens have all been cited as having been manipulated to hide the problem.

Eventually, a concerned mother, LeeAnn Walters, tipped off Miguel Del Toro from the EPA region 5 headquarters in Chicago. Walters had the city test the water in her home, which did not have lead pipes, and the results were startling. The level of lead in the water dwarfed what was considered by the federal government to be actionable levels. Walters passed on the results and samples to Del Toro after having been dismissed by city officials.

Del Toro, a relevant subject matter expert and now whistleblower, contacted Marc Edwards, a previous winner of the MacArthur genius grant, at Virginia Tech. When Edwards tested the water, he found the highest levels of lead he had found in water in his career. The level of lead would classify the samples Walters had provided as toxic waste. Edwards now leads the Flint Water Study, whose stated goals include supporting citizen scientists and studying Flint’s water quality. The failure to provide the citizens of Flint with clean water has led to a class action lawsuit being organized.

While citizen science was only a piece of the effort that has brought the Flint water crisis to light, Walters’ footwork was integral in the involvement of Marc Edwards. With the citizens of Flint onboard, the Flint Water Study will monitor the situation in Flint to keep the now suspect Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in check. Citizen science, especially when combined with altruistic professionals such as Marc Edwards, gives citizens another tool to keep institutions accountable.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 


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