ACS Industry

Not Again: Flint and the Consequences of Following the Law Instead of Its Intent

Blog Post created by ACS Industry on Jan 29, 2016


Chemistry and politics again collided.  On January 16, President Obama declared that an emergency exists in the State of Michigan, the city of Flint to be exact.[1] He authorized the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide disaster relief efforts.  FEMA, a group associated with hurricanes Katrina and Sandy relief efforts, was not in Michigan dealing with a natural disaster. Obama stopped short of a disaster declaration because the emergency is man-made.  National Guard troops are on the ground in Flint.  They are not battling the elements.  They are not keeping the peace.  They are handing out water.


Flint is in crisis because of chemistry, or more exactly, a lack of knowledge of chemistry.  I live near Flint but well outside the emergency zone. Anyone not connected to the Flint municipal water supply is out of the zone.  The Flint municipal water supply was turned into a lead delivery system.  It was no act of terrorism.  It was an act of ineptitude made possible by thinking that rules of law are more important than rules of nature.


Flint, by all accounts, has seen better days.  Michael Moore shone a light on Flint in his 1989 documentary, Roger and Me.  Things haven’t gotten a lot better in Flint since then.  Flint’s finances are in tough shape, so tough that it stopped purchasing water from the Detroit water system, its water source for half a century.[2]  Flint was disconnected from Detroit and began taking water from the Flint River.  The Flint River is a dark and muddy river, a far cry from the sources of clear lake water used by Detroit.  It is not, however, a lead contaminated river.


The lead creating the crisis is not in the river; it is in the pipes, old pipes dating to a time when lead solders were the norm.  The source of the lead is the chemistry occurring in the water pipes.  A small change in water chemistry made the lead mobile. Elevated lead levels are being measured both in the water and in the blood of Flint residents.  Lead contamination is clearly due to the switch from the Detroit water to the Flint River.


The Detroit system adds ppm levels of phosphate to the water as a corrosion inhibitor.  Phosphate for corrosion inhibition is not new science. I found a reference that dates back to the mid-1800s.[3]  Phosphate forms a corrosion resistant coating on copper and lead, but the coating is reversible.[4]  Systems must continually feed phosphate or risk corrosion.  Flint did not add phosphate when it switched to the Flint River water.  Pipes corroded, and lead entered the water, contaminating the entire system.


A mistake was made. Emails have come to light that show a clear focus on the law, not the science.[5]  At the foundation was that a switch in water allowed for a six-month determination of correct corrosion control, apparently hinging on whether the change constituted a new system or a new source.  Others have concluded that once corrosion controls were in place, as they were in the Detroit water, they should have never been stopped. [6] Once lead was identified in the water, rather than searching for and implementing solutions to the technical problem, the response was to follow the letter of the regulation and focus on who was to blame.


A focus on rules--rather than what the rules seek to accomplish--is shockingly common and is something that I have witnessed during my career.  The R&D safety culture in industry requires that you review your work plan with others in a pre-startup inspection.  In my experience, this is the best way to insure safety in the lab; it requires careful thought prior to attempting something new or different.


We have lots of rules in industry. It is said that every safety rule is a response to an event. Someone gets hurt and the system responds by adding a rule written in the form of “thou shalt not….”  Actions allowed are those not explicitly excluded by a rule.


Employees, especially young ones, can get bogged down going through safety regulations in an attempt to find an island outside the areas forbidden by rules, an island where operation is possible.  I always hated the tendency to mindlessly go through the rules as a way to determine what can be safely done.  The rules don’t teach how to approach something safely, they only point out what you can’t do, leaving the zone of safe operation to be determined by exception and exclusion. “Thou shalt not use a cell phone while driving” is a rule because accidents occurred.  “Thou shalt not read a book while driving” will become a rule if accidents are observed.  Just because it isn’t a rule today doesn’t mean it is a safe activity.


I strongly believe that the correct approach, and the one I observed most often, is to actually think about how the activity you want to perform can be done safely.  Discuss it with others and get them to constructively challenge assumptions.  Boundaries are always being pushed in R&D, so by extension, it is only natural that we would want to venture into an area outside of the rules.  Clearly articulate the dangers, the steps to be taken to minimize them, and then look at the rules to insure compliance. Safety comes from understanding. Safety does not come from obedience to rules without understanding their origin and where they apply.  Making safety the most important goal was forgotten in Flint.


Flint may not have been officially declared a disaster, but it is certainly a tragedy.  Those in charge of the city and the water system put residents at risk.  Thousands are suffering for the lack of simple chemical knowledge and adherence to the letter of the law rather than the intent.



Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.


1. higan-emergency-declaration

2. Daisy, Michael, ed.; "Detroit Water and Sewage Department: The First 300 Years", downloaded from on 17 January 2016.

3. Greenwood, N.N. and Earnshaw, A.; Chemistry of the Elements, 2nd Edition (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1997)  ISBN 0- 7506-3365-4, page 520.

4. The Phosphate Forum; "The Use of Phosphates For Potable Water Treatment", file dated 19 January 2007 downloaded from tes.pdf on 17 January 2016.

5. Smith, Lindsey, "State admits Flint did not follow federal rules designed to keep lead out", Michigan Radio, 18 October 2015, signed-keep-lead-out-water#stream/0 downloaded on 17 January 2016.

6. Meegan Holland, 24 December 2015 in overnor-Rick-Snyder.pdf


Additional sources:

Brunning, Andy. "Lead in the Water-The Flint Water Crisis." Compound Interest, 25 January 2016. on 1 February 2016.


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