Statement on Flint and Sebring Lead-Water Crises

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As we all likely know by now, two cities in our backyards – Flint, Michigan and Sebring, Ohio – are dealing with the aftermaths of lead contamination of their water systems. We have received a number of quests and requests from supporters and partners to give our thoughts on these tragic events.

Unfortunately, I am Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.’s only full-time staff member, and I work to balance my time between Cleveland and Uganda, managing all of our programs, operations, projects, and events. I am grateful for my outstanding team of volunteers, board members, and contractors who support this work. Yet, our resources and capacity remain limited. Add to all of this the fact that I am currently working on water projects in Uganda, and we have found that it has been difficult for us to respond to each request sufficiently.

Over the past few weeks, we have been working to educate ourselves on the situations in Flint and Sebring, both through tracking the events in the media and speaking with our partners and colleagues working on theses issues in the affected areas. Accordingly, we wanted to issue a statement outlining our thoughts on these events. Although we are not experts on every water crisis, we hope to share what we can to make people aware of the value we need to place on each other and our precious water.

Fortunately, since officials finally acknowledged the lead crisis, Flint has changed its water supply back to Lake Huron, which will provide cleaner, less corrosive water for its residents. Nonetheless, the immediate crisis has not been solved, and it will take millions of dollars from taxpayers and government entities to ultimately rectify the source of the ongoing contamination – the region’s water infrastructure. Tragically, as we are now seeing in Sebring, the series of events that came together to damage so many lives in Flint – aging infrastructure, economic and fiscal troubles, a lack of trust between citizens and the government, abject failure on the part of public officials – is not unique to one city. It is a symptom of a larger, systemic issue – one that is far too big for DLDT to address on our own – which is compromising our human right to clean drinking water.

That being said, there is always something we all can do to help, and we do truly believe that we can all take small steps to help chip away at the massive water problems facing us today.

In the short-term, a lot of well-intentioned people have been sending single-use plastic water bottles to Flint. While this is a nice gesture – and we applaud those of you trying to help – it does fix not the pipes or address the long-term health issues that will stem from these crises. It also does not help people to take care of their pets, bathe, cook, clean, or address any other contact they have with their water. Furthermore, although Flint has a municipal recycling program, it is not widely used. Most of these bottles will inevitably end up in landfills, where they will remain as a pollutant for thousands of years to come. These bottles produce massive pollution problems for families near oil-drilling and plastic bottle producing operations as well.

At DLDT, we are proud to help raise awareness about the critical water-related issues facing people everywhere, specifically Great Lakes regions of both the North America and Sub-Saharan Africa. We work to serve the people of Uganda who walk far distances to collect water that makes them sick, which makes them more likely to dropout of school, become early mothers, or face accidents with people and the environment. In the US, we are proud to bring people back to the tap and reconnect them with the greatest source of freshwater on the plant.

To that end, we have spoken with our partners at Kinetico and Parker Hannifin to inquire about what steps people concerned about or looking to help ameliorate the crises in Flint and Sebring can take. We will continue to update you on any progress or new insights via our partners. We strongly recommend that people worried about lead contamination get their water tested. This can be done by your local water department (typically free of charge), by the provider of your home or workplace water purifier (if you have one), or by purchasing a home testing kit for about $10. This step can help you learn about your family’s water (particularly if you live in a low-income area and/or a community with aging water infrastructure). While we want to emphasize that tap water throughout the country is almost always safe, testing can alert you to any risks, at which point you can select a water filter that works for your family. Bottled water remains highly unregulated and is not preferred for all but the most acute emergencies. If you do choose to test your water yourself, please follow these guidelines closely.

If you would like to help the people of Flint, we recommend looking into sponsoring filters for affected families or contributing to funds that will help the children of Flint cope with the long-term health effects of this manmade disaster. One great option is the Flint Child Health & Development Fund, which was started by the pediatrician that helped to bring the lead contamination to light. We also know that the United Way of Genesee County is working to distribute water purifiers and other supplies to Flint.

One issue that we have become aware of in recent days, both from friends on the ground and media sources, is that a number of immigrants, non-native English speakers, elderly, and homeless Flint residents without government-issued IDs are not getting the resources they need. This is completely unacceptable. Every person has the right to drink safe, clean water, regardless of his/her age, gender, race, nationality, or immigration status. Thank you to those of you helping get some water in the hands of these people, whatever the container.

Lastly, and one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is ‘how can we not let our water get to this corrosive state?’

The reason that lead got to people taps wasn’t because of lead in the river, it was lead from the pipes that leached into the water because of the Chloride concentrations. Road salt, plus natural river salt plus the treatment of the water with Chloride leads to this leaching issue. Read more on this topic here and here.

If I were in Cleveland and not working in Uganda this past month, I would have traveled to Flint to get more information and provide assistance in person in some way. As it is, I must remain here to carry out my commitments to the communities we serve, though I will continue speaking with our partners to see how we can be of service going forward. While I wish DLDT could help solve every water crisis, we acknowledge our limitations, given our size, resources, and funding. But that does not mean that each of us cannot play a role. Thank you for your concern on these issues. The struggle to secure safe water for every person demands advocates. The world needs you.

Safe #waterislife,

Erin Huber

Executive Director and Founder, Drink Local. Drink Tap.

The lives we change at Drink Local. Drink Tap. need you now more than ever.

As we continue to fight the spread of COVID-19, take a moment to consider how you and your family would be impacted if you didn’t have access to safe water. With your help, 3,000 children will have a clean water system at school where there has been no water at all. We need your support.

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