How a City's Drinking Water Became Toxic, and What's Next

Current Events, Statutes at Large, U.S. Federal Legislative History
Shannon Sabo

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has dominated national news since the story of contaminated water poisoning families, especially children, broke earlier this year when multiple states of emergency were declared. Adding fuel to the outrage is the fact that 57% of Flint's residents are black, and nearly half of residents live beneath the poverty line.

In April of 2014, the state of Michigan decided to save money by changing Flint's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This occurred during a financial state of emergency for Flint, and was supposed to be a temporary solution while a new state-run water supply line to Lake Huron was made ready for connection. Soon after the water source changed, Flint residents reported to local leaders that the water was foul-smelling and tasting, and appeared dirty.

In October of 2014, General Motors stopped using Flint River water in its plants because it was corroding engine parts. Throughout 2015, residents were warned that their water contained high levels of various toxins, but were assured the water was safe for all except the sick and the elderly; subsequently, many businesses started bringing in coolers of clean water. 

Flint residents began taking their children to pediatricians with odd symptoms, including rashes and hair loss. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, concerned about the water despite officials' assurances of its safety, tested affected children for lead levels. Since Medicare requires states to keep records of lead levels, it was easy to determine that they had doubled and tripled for some of the children exposed to the Flint water since its source changed. Residents like LeeAnne Walters began demanding action. Her tap water's lead content measured at nearly 400 parts per billion, when the maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 parts per billion. Lead exposure, especially in young children, has horrific effects. Long-term consequences can include a lower IQ, shortened attention span, negative impact on the reproductive system and other organs, and increases in violence and antisocial behavior. The World Health Organization believes that the neurological effects of lead exposure are irreversible. Complaints continued, as did the government's resistance to admit the scope of the problem and refusal to implement potential solutions. Mother Jones published this detailed timeline of the entire disaster, from the water source switch in 2014 to a lawsuit filed at the end of January 2016 by a coalition of organizations and citizens, including the ACLU and the National Resources Defense Council.

The Detroit News discusses the lawsuit in this article. The coalition asserts that the Safe Drinking Water Act was violated by the actions of Flint officials. The original text of this Act can be found in HeinOnline's U.S. Statutes at Large collection at 88 Stat. 1660:

The original Act has been amended several times. Follow the history of the Safe Drinking Water Act using the Popular Name option in the U.S. Statutes at Large:

Access compiled federal legislative histories on the Safe Drinking Water Act and its subsequent amendments. Enter the U.S. Federal Legislative History Library and browse by Popular Name:

Click on any Act's title to view available compiled legislative histories:

Search across all subscribed HeinOnline collections for scholarly articles, hearings, books and more about the Safe Drinking Water Act:

Use the facets on the left side of the page to refine your search results to include only specific collections, section types, or date ranges. Note that matching text is highlighted in yellow in each search result. View recent Congressional Record issues containing information on how the water crisis in Flint relates to the Safe Drinking Water Act by searching within the U.S. Congressional Documents collection for "Safe Drinking Water Act" AND "Flint crisis"~5:

We will continue to follow this story as it unfolds, to see both how officials handle a crisis with such large and irreversible consequences and what lawmakers do to implement stricter regulations to ensure that something of this magnitude never happens again.

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