New PBS documentary ‘Poisoned Water’ tackles Flint water crisis

The Flint Water Treatment Plant in Flint, Michigan (Courtesy of Caitlin Saks/WGBH)

The water disaster in Flint, Michigan exposed the dangers of this country’s aging water system, and a new film premiering Wednesday, May 31 on PBS’ NOVA tells the mid-Michigan city’s “complex story.”

About 300 local residents saw the film already and found it “very powerful,” said Llewellyn Smith in a MSR phone interview. Smith wrote, produced, and directed the one-hour film.

Poisoned Water features on-camera interviews with Miguel Del Toral, the EPA official who first publicly raised the alarm about lead in the Flint water system; LeeAnne Walters, a mother whose twin boys had been poisoned by the water; Virginia Tech Chemical Engineer Marc Edwards, who used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire documents and discover the culpability of scientists and engineers from state and federal agencies; and an independent research team from Virginia Tech, who tested the water and distributed hundreds of sampling kits to Flint residents to test their own water.

(See a preview of the documentary below)

The film, narrated by Scandal‘s Joe Morton, shows how a state-appointed emergency manager authorized the switch of the municipal water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which would trigger “a chemical chain reaction with devastating results.” Those results included thousands of local children being exposed to lead poisoning, and two possible outbreaks of Legionnaire Disease that claimed 12 lives.

A damaged pipe excavated from a Flint residence. Replacing all of Flint’s lead pipes will be a multi-year endeavor. Courtesy of Caitlin Saks/WGBH

Even though scientists now have declared that it is safe for Flint residents to drink water that’s filtered, “So many people have been harmed and traumatized from this experience,” stated Smith, an award-winning filmmaker. “Some of these people have been psychologically abused by it. There’s a powerful mistrust” of local and state officials, he noted.

Once a heavily industrial town, Flint for several decades has been besieged with plant closings and foreclosures — “struggling with poverty and violence, neglect, loss of jobs, sturdy housing stock, loss of tax base and population. All of these things have really created a condition that has made the city very, very fragile,” said Smith.

“What happened in Flint is really the tip of a long historical iceberg of racial injustice, economic injustice, institutional racism, neglect and politics that maligned the fabric of life throughout the city,” added Smith.

The Flint residents are the real heroes of the story, said Smith. “The ‘scientists’ who found [the tainted water] were LeeAnn Walters and the people who were working with her who really exposed it — the citizens called [out] the situation,” he said.

“She was a little bit standoffish” upon first meeting Walters, he recalled. “She had lots of people come down wanting to talk to her about this and that. I think she was not sure how far to trust us.”

But eventually Walters opened up to him. “I found her to be extraordinary warm and generous, very devoted to Flint and her family. She is one of the few people who are really deeply motivated to figure out for herself what is going on here. She is a remarkable person — very warm, very smart. She is the salt of the earth.”

A water bottle litters the banks of the Flint River. Flint’s water crisis began when city officials switched the municipal water supply from Lake Huron water to the more corrosive Flint River water. Courtesy of Caitlin Saks/WGBH

When asked if what happened in Flint is similar to what happened in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, Smith responded, “I think there are some interesting similarities. You had this tremendous storm that hit New Orleans, but what made the storm even more devastating and more destructive was the level of poverty and segregation, disenfranchisement and neglect that had happened, especially [to the] African American communities.”

In both New Orleans and Flint, “You got two communities that were destroyed economically and socially in terms of jobs and poverty…then on top of that you have this disaster,” said Smith.

Smith said he and his film crew began work last August and completed “a few weeks ago.” “Some of the biggest challenges [were] really getting folk to talk with us. People have been in and out of Flint for months and months, doing this story and that story. We wanted to do a thorough investigative piece. We tried to not just tell the story but also tell the story that recognizes their character.”

“Flint is not unusual,” said the filmmaker, because America has an outdated water infrastructure: “You are talking about millions and millions of [underground] pipes around the country that have to be identified, dug up and replaced. It is not a cheap process to do,” he pointed out.

“What happened in Flint could be happening right now in many other cities. We have so many lead pipes that are so fragile, it could happen anywhere right now,” concluded  Smith.
NOVA: Poisoned Water premiered Wednesday May 31 on PBS (TPT2 in the Twin Cities). Check local listings for repeat showings or go here to watch it online.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to

6 Comments on “New PBS documentary ‘Poisoned Water’ tackles Flint water crisis”

  1. Thank you for this. Now I am moving from scared to furious. But I can something about this. And I will!!!!

  2. Folks, don’t forget about our lead problems here in Minnesota, also. Michigan folks were brave enough to push the lead in the nation’s attention. They should be commended for that. For two years here in Minnesota our State Legislature has refused to pass a lead bill aimed at helping landlords and home owners rid their structures of lead, that we are still finding in our children’s systems. Lead is still be found in school buildings. School systems now have to reinstate their testing for lead, which they had to do in the past, which some school systems have not done for years and years and years. The is documentation showing the data on this- can’t remember where I saw it. Lead poisoning is a STATE-WIDE problem/issue. Has anybody checked barns, farmhouses, fences, rural school systems for lead lately?? Any structure build before the 1970’s has a lead potential. In a conversation with Rep Ray Dehn, (Ray is one of the legislatures that support the lead bill) he told me that lead was even being found currently in pipes being shipped from other countries for new construction here in the US. Please do not think you or your loved ones are exempt from potential lead poising creeping into the environment where you live, play, or work.

  3. Everybody better check their own garages, look on the bench where you set your tackle box after taking the grandkids to teach them how to fish. Go to a hardware store, buy a cheap lead test kit for surfaces, go home and test that tackle box superfund site by just swabbing anywhere in the box. The fine black nearly pure lead powder contaminating the surfaces has likely poisoned the people you love by contaminating your hands, the fishing pole, the sandwiches you handed out to your grandkids, the apples you ate, the cooler ice, and the fish you took home to put into the frying pan. Chronic low dose accumulative effects harm children from all lead sources, the high levels on those apples could have directly poisoned them at levels that reduced IQ. How many tackle boxes sit in contaminated boats? How many sinkers get lost in salmon streams that grind lead sinkers up, exponentially increasing surface area to dissolve faster in the water, chronically low dosing whole aquatic habitats? All of this pollution is ignored by the regulatory agencies because the NRA and industry lobbies reduce election funding to many legislators that would
    ask their ‘environmental protection agencies’ to do their jobs assessing these risks as required by the Clean Water Act, Clean Drinking Water Act etc. None of this ever shows up in required reporting with EPA or other water quality-responsible agencies. Our children, grandchildren, and their grandchildren who we borrow this world from… are harmed.

  4. Just learn to read the research, or find someone who can and does, to do their best to help you to understand as much of the research as possible, and you will certainly become alarmed about mental (and medical) declines attributable across society due to chronic low dose accumulative adverse effects. Lead is additive and synergistic with many other neurotoxins and pathways for other medical degradation as well. Science is failing us on many fronts because the funding mechanisms have very strong disincentives built in by industry to strongly limit researchers from speaking up about the many dangers they begin to comprehend. The profit motive is killing us. Poisons abound, degraded health results… even while medical gains are touted by industry to placate anyone who begins to question adequately. Politicians typically see environmental and pollution causative influence on health decline as being inherently politically and fiscally subversive. Grant funding for associative, pointedly investigative assessment is pervasively restricted. Politicians fear election funding cuts from industry lobby sources in the industry if they are displeased. Yet, accurate monitoring and assessment is essential for scientific method and public health to be done with integrity and best societal gain. The profit motive is killing us by controlling just what science gets done, and what does not. Read the research that does manage to get funded, to begin to grasp just how much important (essential) research goes unfunded or hidden from view. Our great great grandchildren beg us to overcome this bias against science.

  5. The use of blood lead testing, as indicator of magnitude of the problems of lead exposure for individuals, can mislead by not determining the body burden of lead accumulated over time beyond a few months. Bone lead, dentine lead, and other measurements via XRF or Laser ablation ICPMS, need to be adequately assessed to give a far better picture of overall potential harms to exposed children. Lead is an ACCUMULATIVE toxicant.

Comments are closed.