The $400 Million Flint Water Scandal Is Just the Beginning
Policy + Politics

The $400 Million Flint Water Scandal Is Just the Beginning

The biggest tragedy of the Flint, Michigan, drinking water scandal is that an estimated 8,000 children under the age of six may have been exposed to lead poisoning for two years before the outrageous mismanagement of the municipality’s water system was finally exposed.

Many of those children may have already suffered brain damage or developmental problems from drinking tap water with lead levels ten times higher than the levels recommended by federal regulators. And given the relatively limited health care services in the economically depressed city of 95,000 mostly low-income and minority residents, some medical experts say the long-term prognosis for these kids is not encouraging.

Related: Outraged Americans Want Immediate Action on Flint Water Crisis

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, filed criminal charges against six more state Department of Health and Human Services and Environmental Quality officials late last month. That brought to nine the number of state and local officials who are accused of conspiring to cover up a water treatment fiasco that allowed lead to leach from aging pipes into the city’s water supply beginning in early 2014.

“These individuals concealed the truth,” Schuette said at a news conference. “And the victims, these are real people who have been lied to by government officials and been treated as if they don’t count.”

The drinking water catastrophe has evolved into a massive legal, political, economic and social controversy, with many blaming Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and emergency managers he hired to oversee the financially strapped city’s municipal operations in early 2014. Irate residents and beleaguered business owners have filed suit seeking restitution and damages for the public health risks posed to themselves and their children by the contaminated drinking water.

It’s impossible, of course, to assign a monetary value to a life destroyed or badly impaired by a public health crisis such as the one in Flint. But a Columbia University public health expert, Peter Muennig, has ventured to estimate the “social cost” related to the poisoning of the Flint drinking water system. In a letter to the journal Health Affairs published on Monday, Muennig pegged the cost at $395 million, dating back to April 2014. That was, when the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River without treating the new water source to prevent aging pipes from leaching lead from aging pipes.

Related: Congress Fumbles Again on Funding for the Flint Water Crisis

The economic factors used in computing the societal costs associated with the victim of a public health disaster like the one in Flint include estimated loss of productivity, reliance on public welfare programs, and inappropriate or unlawful behavior that requires the intervention of the criminal justice system.

The $395 million two-year figure doesn’t count the $58 million already spent by the state on medical care and water provisions for Flint residents to drink and bathe in. “The city's decision to switch its water supply was penny wise and pound foolish," Muennig, a professor of Health Policy and Management, said in a statement accompanying his study. "In an effort that would have saved approximately $5 million, the city of Flint will suffer losses 80-fold greater." 

For his research, Muennig correlated data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the number of children in the United States exposed to low-levels of lead poisoning – five to nine micrograms per deciliter -- and research on the related lifetime economic losses. He came up with a conservative estimate of $50,000 in lifetime economic losses for every child exposed to those levels of lead.

Related: How the Flint Drinking Water Crisis Became a Political Punching Bag

As serious as the lead poisoning problem is in Flint, it pales by comparison with the overall national problem. Throughout the U.S., there were 90,000 such lead poisonings in 2014, according to Muennig’s study, which worked out to a staggering $4.5 billion of societal costs in 2015. Flint, with more than 8,000 cases, represented just five percent of all exposures between April 2014 and April 2015.