PBS NOVA airs “Poisoned Water”

The documentary “Poisoned Water” aired on the PBS series NOVA on May 31st.  The program tells the story of the city of Flint, Michigan’s switch from Lake Huron to Flint River water, and lead poisoning crisis which followed.

It was unclear who funded the making of the documentary, although it was made by Blue Spark Collaboration.  I could not find any information about “Poisoned Water” on the Blue Spark Collaborative website.  Funding for the series NOVA was provided by 23andMe genetic service and David H. Koch, an American businessman who with his brother Charles owns the second largest private firm in the US (www.forbes.com/profile/david-koch).  Koch’s political views are libertarian, and he has contributed to the political campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats.  Koch is a cancer survivor who has given millions to cancer research, among other charities.

The decision to switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to Flint River was intended to be a money saving measure, instituted by an emergency manager appointed by Governor Snyder.  The film focuses on Flint resident LeeAnne Walters, who became an activist after observing the health problems that she and her four children suffered as a result of exposure to the city water.  Walters requested documents and did her own research on water quality and the effects of lead.

At first, the city’s response to Walters and others’ complaints was denial.  Walters discovered by going through Flint water reports that the city had not been applying corrosion controls.  Walters appealed to the EPA’s Midwest water division, which led to an introduction to Marc Edwards, an expert in lead corrosion at Virginia Tech.  Edwards had challenged the Center for Disease Control’s data during the DC water crisis in 2001-2010.  To Edwards, “Flint was the next DC.”  Edwards and his team conducted their own tests and requested more city documents through FOIA requests.  They found Flint residents had been instructed by city officials to flush the water lines before sampling, thereby decreasing the amount of lead that would be found in the sample.  They also found that samples from LeeAnne Walters’s home had been discarded.  Another player in the story was pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who began researching the blood lead levels of Flint’s children before and after the change in water supply.

It took yet another water borne crisis, this time the appearance of Legionnaire’s Disease bacteria in the water which infected 90 and killed 12, before Dr. Eden Wells of Michigan HHS confirmed the research and the Governor ordered Flint’s water supply to switch back to Lake Huron.  LD bacteria are normally killed by chlorine in the water, but without corrosion control the chlorine was consumed by rust.

In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, 13 people have been criminally indicted.  LeeAnne Walters moved her family to Virginia.

6 Responses to PBS NOVA airs “Poisoned Water”

  • engineersanonymous says:

    It’s interesting that this shows how contradictory the public sphere can be….the same Koch brothers who are notorious for seeking to undermine pollution controls in one context are drawn into supporting documentaries on clean water activism.

  • yanna says:

    Very glad you had the opportunity to watch this documentary! I wonder if it raised any questions for you? Did you have the chance to see the pre-screening event in Flint and the interaction between Flint residents and the panelists? Here’s the link, if you’re interested: https://livestream.com/wkar/novapw/videos/156871543. It will be great to ask some of our guest speakers as well as individuals you will all interview what they thought about it (if they have seen it).

    • signalinda says:

      Yanna, thanks for the link. I watched the panel and it’s clear the trust is still down, concern is up (especially since the state of Michigan is expected to cut off support), and the health problems are still prevalent. I was impressed by Marc Edwards’ honest answer to the question of what Washington DC did to rebuild trust or avoid businesses and residents from leaving as a result of its lead in water crisis. Quite simply, the authorities lied and covered it up until it blew over. Edwards praises Flint for calling attention to the problem. Interesting contrast.

  • yanna says:

    I also wonder what we should/could make, if anything, about the funders and the makers of the series NOVA. What do you think their interest/focus/priorities might be in how they tell stories like the DC and Flint water crises? I was contacted by the NOVA filmmakers during the making of their documentary and had a fascinating (if not disturbing) experience.

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