(Note: This lesson contains strong language. Teacher discretion advised.)
On April 25th, 2014, officials in Flint, Michigan held aloft glasses filled with water from the Flint River, in a toast to the city’s new public works project. For nearly 50 years, the city purchased treated water from Detroit, but in 2013 the City Council approved the construction of a pipeline that would bring water directly from Lake Huron into the city. The Flint River would provide the city with water until the pipeline was built.
Switching the water supply was considered above all else a necessary cost-cutting measure for the city. The birthplace of General Motors and a booming center of the automobile industry for much of the 20th century, Flint’s financial stability began to falter in the 1980s, as General Motors began outsourcing, offshoring, and automating autoworker jobs. In 2002, Michigan Governor John Engler declared a financial emergency in Flint, and installed what would be a series of unelected emergency managers who were given authority to oversee the city’s finances. From 2002 to 2018, these managers began laying off city workers, cutting benefits, eliminating social programs, and raising water bills in an attempt to balance the city’s budget. Fatefully, the city managers also decided–without approval from the city council–to bring an end to the city’s reliance on Detroit water before the completion of the Lake Huron pipeline by drawing water from the Flint River.
Almost immediately after the switch, residents began to grow worried about the smell, taste, and appearance of the water. Some started reporting sudden medical concerns such as rashes and hair loss. By the beginning of 2015, the Flint City Council voted to move the city back to water from Detroit, a decision that was denied by emergency manager Gerald Ambrose, who argued the switch back would be too costly. Upon retiring from the position, Ambrose then signed orders prohibiting other Flint officials from revising any of his past actions for at least a year.
In the meantime, scientists and doctors grew concerned with the safety of Flint’s drinking water. Local and national researchers found dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water, among other pollutants, and doctors in the area began to warn parents against using tap water. In response, state regulators continued to claim the water was safe to drink, even after it was revealed that Flint’s emergency managers did not add corrosion control to the Flint River water treatment process as a cost-cutting measure — a vital step to insuring lead from plumbing does not filter into tap water. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality even tampered with research data and dismissed the results of other tests to maintain this stance that Flint’s drinking water was safe.
Finally, in October 2015, a year and a half after residents were first exposed to toxic drinking water, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ordered the city’s water supply switched back to Detroit. Three months later, Snyder declared a state of emergency in the city, and began distributing bottled water and filters to residents.
As of 2019, no governmental officials have been convicted of any crimes related to the Flint water crisis. And while the water in Flint has been tested safe to drink, residents are living with the lifelong effects of lead poisoning, and a skepticism towards authorities brought about after being told for nearly a year that water with high amounts of lead was safe to drink.
In this lesson, students listen to Flint-based rapper Jon Connor’s song “Fresh Water for Flint” to better understand the sense of frustration and injustice people living in the city felt during the water crisis. Students then experiment with creating their own water filtration system to better understand the scientific and engineering principles behind water treatment. Lastly, they consider the biological effects of lead poisoning and determine specific, political, economic, and scientific causes behind the Flint water crisis.
This lesson made possible in part by Leaving a Positive Legacy, Inc. Positive Legacy is a 501c3 nonprofit that integrates music and service to benefit people and the planet.
- 2-liter soda bottles, cut in half horizontally
- Water “Pollutants,” which could include dirt or soil, coffee grounds, dish washing liquid, baking soda, vinegar, food coloring, vegetable oil
- A pitcher
- Coffee filters
- Filter material: cotton balls, large pebbles, small pebbles, sand, active charcoal
- A water quality monitoring kit