News Feature | March 8, 2016

Unsung Water Operator The First To Blow Whistle In Flint

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Critics say various public officials should have spoken out sooner about the lead contamination crisis in Flint.

But the Flint saga also has a few heroes — people who did speak out about the water quality crisis bubbling up through the city’s pipes.

Elin Betanzo, an engineer and certified water operator, is among them. She alerted the medical community about the problem, and it led to a groundbreaking study about lead afflicting Flint’s children.

Betanzo “first got an inkling that something was wrong in April 2014, when she attended a training session sponsored by the Michigan American Water Works Association. It was announced at the event that Flint was signing on with the Karegnondi Water Authority and changing its water source to the Flint River,” Michigan Radio, an NPR news station, reported.

The switch grabbed Betanzo’s attention, according to the radio report.

“That’s not something that happens every day,” Betanzo said. “It surprised me for two reasons. One, they were saying that they were moving off of Detroit water to save money, but usually you don’t save money by going independent. There’s economies of scale, and by having a larger water system, it seems theoretically, if all the economics are working properly, Flint would be saving money to be staying on Detroit. So from an expense point of view, it seemed unusual that they were changing off of the Detroit water.”

It also struck her as strange that the city would switch to a dirtier water source. Flint residents had previously been drinking Lake Huron water, which is cleaner than Flint River water.

“Usually the reasons for changing a water source are either because the original source is running out, maybe due to drought, or it’s getting contaminated,” she said, per the report.

Then, in July of 2014, Betanzo learned of elevated lead levels in the water. She decided to alert a lifelong friend, Mona Hanna-Attisha, who subsequently led a groundbreaking study that helped bring public attention to the Flint crisis.

Betanzo explained: “We were talking in her kitchen, and she kind of just mentioned, she was talking about her commute to Flint. I realized when I was talking to her, you know, it all just came together. I’m like, you work in Flint. You’re in charge of the pediatric residency program in Flint. You have access to the children’s medical records. You could do the study that we need. If you do the study and if you document the increase in childhood blood lead levels, this is what would need to happen to make people pay attention to this and actually listen to the residents in Flint.”

The study revealed that Flint’s ongoing water woes are linked to “an immediate and irreversible danger — possible lead poisoning of some of the city’s children,” the Detroit Free Press reported in September.

Mona Hanna-Attisha of Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine explained the implications of the findings.

“I was hoping not to find anything, but what we found… is concerning," she said at the time, per the Free Press. “This is not something you mess around with. Our population already has so many issues from poverty, from unemployment, from violence.”

To keep up with all of our Flint coverage, visit Water Online’s Drinking Water Contaminant Removal Solutions Center.