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Perceived Water Quality and Reported Health Among Adults During the Flint, MI Water Crisis


In April 2014, the municipal water source for Flint, Michigan was changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors, which resulted in water contamination with lead and other harmful substances. Soon after the change, residents of Flint reported concerns about the smell, taste, and appearance of their tap water. Some even reported health issues such as skin rashes and hair loss, yet Flint officials insisted that the city water was safe. Community members expressed their concerns about the quality of the water at municipal meetings, organized marches and protests, and even reached out to the media. However, Flint officials continued to insist that the city water was safe.

The Speak to Your Health! (STYH) Community Survey has been conducted every two years in Genesee County, Michigan since 2003. This community-based participatory project monitors local health and health related concerns, observes the influence of health initiatives on health outcomes, and encourages change to improve the health of Genesee County residents. Following the lack of official response to the water contamination, the Survey Committee added an item on tap water quality experiences in the 2015 survey. 

In the edited survey, the sampled adults of Genesee County were asked questions that addressed their physical and mental health issues. Days when poor physical health interfered with daily activities and days when poor mental health interfered with daily activities out of the past 30 days were recorded. In the new portion of the survey, participants rated their tap water quality (taste, smell, appearance) as Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, or Excellent. 

Overall, participants rated their tap water quality as poor (57%), fair (20%), good (13%), very good (6%), and excellent (3%), meaning that most of the participants perceived their tap water quality to be poor. 

And ultimately, there was a relationship found between perceived poorer tap water quality with reported worse physical and mental health. This suggests that the poor tap water quality following the Flint Water Crisis could have had a negative impact on the physical and mental health of Flint residents. Since lead-contaminated drinking water has been associated with health defects including skin rashes, hair loss, higher rates of miscarriage, and more, the crisis could definitely have affected physical health of Flint residents. Not only that, but because Flint residents may have been rightfully worried or anxious about the consequences of drinking and using the tap water, the perceived poorer tap water quality could also have affected their mental health as well. 

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