‘Another Teenager with an Important Message’ (About the Flint Water Crisis)

Claim

Flint, Michigan still does not have clean water as of September 2019.

Rating

Decontextualized

Reporting

As Greta Thunberg made news (and fake news) on September 24 2019, a Reddit post featuring “another teenager with an important message” about Flint, Michigan’s purported lack of clean water quickly moved to the top of r/all:

Here’s another teenager with an important message from pics

A red tag added to the post (presumably by subreddit moderators) labeled it “misleading.” The post consisted of an image of a girl in black attire, holding a letterboard which read:

FLINT MI HAS BEEN WITHOUT CLEAN WATER SINCE APRIL 24TH 2014 @LITTLEMISSFLINT

On September 23 2019, Valerie Complex shared the image above side-by-side with a photograph of Thunberg on Twitter, imploring fellow users to give “Little Miss Flint … the same energy” afforded Thunberg in her climate change advocacy:

In April 2019, we examined a claim that Flint, Michigan had been without clean water since April 25 2014 — one day after the letterboard’s provided date of April 24 2014. Semantically, that aspect of the letterboard checked out, as the day before the start of the Flint water crisis the one on the sign — the last day that Flint had untainted water.

Of note is that in April 2019, we rated the claim true without qualification — although efforts had been made to supply Flint with clean water, the problem was not eradicated as of then:

As of March 2019, Pacific Standard reported that the effort to replace pipes in Flint remained unfinished. And on April 11 2019, MichiganLive published an article about the ongoing work there[.]

So the question in that context was whether Flint had been supplied with potable water between April and September 2019.

At the top of the Reddit thread, a user maintained they “thought it got fixed,” and another replied “yup,” linking to an article. The source was a month-old Michigan Public Radio piece about the state of Flint’s water, titled “Does Flint have clean water? Yes, but it’s complicated.” Despite being relatively recent at the time the Reddit thread was active, there was a note at the top suggesting changes:

This post has been updated with new information about the testing of Flint’s water.

The article reported in part:

At this point [in August 2019], Flint’s lead levels are better than some other Michigan cities. Over the last two years, Benton Harbor, Romulus, Hamtramck, Parchment, Houghton and the villages of Lawrence and Beverly Hills each exceeded the EPA action level for lead in drinking water, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Michigan also now has the toughest drinking water standards in the country, and requires vigourous testing.

That doesn’t mean there still aren’t problems in Flint.

The city switched back to the Detroit water system in 2015. But the damage had already been done, and the city’s lead service lines continued to leach lead into residents’ drinking water.

MPR’s reporting also included new information not available at the time our most recent fact check was published:

In August 2019, the state of Michigan warned city officials that Flint was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because it failed to test water at enough homes with lead service lines or lead plumbing fixtures. A spokeswoman for the city told MLive that Flint officials say that is because the state “did not provide the city with the final approved sampling methods” in time.

Flint was required to test water from a minimum of 60 high-risk homes from January to July 2019. But as the city works to replace lead service lines, there are fewer and fewer homes that meet that standard.

The city submitted 35 valid tests, and 30 invalid sample results. But those tests were invalid because the samples were either taken after a home’s lead service line had been replaced, or before excavation showed the service line to be copper.

If anything, the headline’s characterization of the water situation in Flint was apt by describing it as “complicated.” On the same day the Reddit post was published, Michigan outlet MLive.com reported about conflicting claims about the safety of Flint’s water. Mark Edwards, a professor who was involved in helping expose the initial crisis in Flint, argued that the water was cleaner than some advocates claimed:

Edwards said in an email to MLive-The Flint Journal that the false narrative about Flint water started in 2016 when the organization Water Defense used what he calls “unscientific sampling methods, raising fears about dangerous exposures to (total trihalomethanes) in showers.

“Hearing that Hurley doctors are attempting to minimize damages when it comes to the lives of residents concerns me,” [Mayor Karen] Weaver said. “That kind of behavior is disrespectful to our community and unbelievably insensitive to what we have endured over the past four years …

“That was resolved after I coordinated second, third and fourth party sampling that showed completely normal levels of THMs, and when Mr. Scott Smith bravely corrected the record last year,” the email says.

[…]

Edwards has most recently taken issue with the Public Broadcasting Service program “Frontline” for its reporting on the subject of faucet filter testing in Flint.

Frontline reported recently on testing of a limited number of faucet filters in Flint by a team led by Dr. Shawn McElmurry of Wayne State University.

Weaver and Edwards have long debated their respective viewpoints about Flint’s water, dating back to at least May 2018. On September 10 2019, PBS Frontline coverage quoted Weaver in from the previous June about claims about the safety of Flint’s water. In a piece with the headline, “The EPA Says Flint’s Water is Safe — Scientists Aren’t So Sure,” Weaver stood by her comments as of September 2019:

This past June [2019], EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler declared that Flint’s water was “safe to drink.” [In September 2019], an EPA spokesperson reaffirmed that to FRONTLINE, saying that the drinking water “currently meets all health-based standards.”

But Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver, has dismissed such declarations as “premature.”

“Nobody wants to say that Flint water is safe to drink more than myself and the residents of Flint, but, before we say it, we want to be absolutely sure it is true,” she said in June [2019] in response to Wheeler’s comments. A spokesperson for the mayor told FRONTLINE that Weaver stands by her stance.

Though Flint’s water, which once tested dangerously high for lead, is now within federal safety standards, microbiologists, infectious disease experts and officials including Weaver worry that harmful elements may still remain — and that state and federal regulators aren’t actively testing for them.

On August 29 2019, WDET reported Jassmine McBride, 30, died of Legionnaire’s disease linked to the Flint Water Crisis earlier that year. McBride was diagnosed in 2014, and died on February 12 2019.

Although the Reddit post titled “Here’s another teenager with an important message” was tagged “misleading,” its claims about the Flint water crisis were not far off the mark. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others have repeatedly declared Flint’s water safe, and scientists and officials have repeatedly disputed those claims. By all accounts, not all slated work to fix the initial problem had been carried out in 2019. Social media users appeared to recall reading that the problem had been largely or partly corrected, but Flint did not appear to be out of the woods entirely when it came to the safety of its water supply for all residents.

In other words, even if the water is free of lead, there is no evidence that it is free of other contaminants and growing evidence that it remains contaminated — but it is difficult to say for certain, as officials are not actively testing for other harmful organisms or elements.