As a single parent to two teenage girls, I have spent the majority of my adult life trying to protect them from every conceivable injury, or hurt that I can. I never thought what I might have to protect them from was as essential for survival as water, and as ubiquitous as a municipal water supply. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, where I grew up and where I still have family.
The residents of Flint are currently involved in what can best described as a catastrophic failure of leadership, and at worst environmental racism. The residents of Flint, my hometown, have been drinking water contaminated with lead for nearly two years. This includes children and infants (through formula made with contaminated water or through high doses in contaminated breast milk.)
There is nothing worse than watching your child in pain, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. That is exactly what the parents of Flint, Michigan are faced with every single day.
The issue became national news back in October of 2015, but the problem began back in April 2014 after the city switched from using Detroit’s water system, which pumps water from Lake Huron, to the Flint treatment plant, which pumps water from the Flint River. The new pipeline wasn’t scheduled to be completed until the end of 2016, so the residents would have to drink water sourced from the Flint River in the meantime.
I am from Flint, and anyone there will tell you exactly how disgusting the Flint River is, most years you can’t even eat the fish that come out of the river. We used to joke about how contaminated the water was from industrial waste, and I would never, ever allow my kids to drink it. As a former Flint resident and a public health professional I, like every other person, assumed the city would appropriately and effectively treat the water before it was used by residents, especially as a 2011 report notified the city that water from the Flint River would need to be treated with a special anti-corrosive agent in order for the water to be considered fit for human consumption.
Lead is a systemic toxicant, which means that it damages almost every organ in the body. It’s also a neurotoxin and even small amounts are considered poisonous. Lead poisoning it is much more common through repeated exposures to small amounts over time, as opposed to a single larger dose and in these cases, there may not be any obvious symptoms. It takes less exposure to lead to cause poisoning in children and infants and even low levels of lead exposure can harm a child’s development. The health problems get worse as the level of lead in the blood gets higher. Lead is most damaging to the developing brain, which is why the crisis in Flint has so many parents panicked.
So how did lead get into the water in the first place? It all goes back to switch in water sources.
At the time the city switched water sources, it was facing an unprecedented financial crisis as a result of The Great Recession, and was being managed by governor appointed financial managers who determined that it would save the city, which was facing bankruptcy, money. So, after massive budget cuts by emergency managers, that laid off police officers, and first responders, closed governmental offices and schools, the managers decided to switch to the city’s crumbling water supply, until the new pipeline to Lake Huron was complete.
The change to the city’s dilapidated pipelines was almost immediately disastrous as residents started reporting that the water had a brown color, had a foul odor, and a weird taste. As a parent, can you imagine bathing your child in brown water, or mixing up formula with foul smelling water? Many residents had no choice but to use the water. When residents notified the city of the issues with the water they were told that tests had shown the water to be safe. We know now that’s a lie.
What was actually happening was that the water from the Flint River was so contaminated that chemicals from industrial run-off corroded the city’s aging pipes, releasing the lead that was in them. The recommendations in the 2011 report I mentioned earlier weren’t adopted, meaning the anti-corrosive agent wasn’t used, which allowed the chemicals in the water to flow freely through those known-to-be-aging pipes and release the lead.
Why was the lead in the pipes in the first place? Lead had been used to make pipes going back to the 1800s. Before that even the Romans used it, because it was as strong as iron but was easier to manipulate. But by the 1970s it became apparent that the risks of lead poisoning weren’t worth the convenience of using the material, so the EPA banned its use. Unfortunately that means that pipes in cities and homes laid before 1980 are made of lead, including those in Flint.
After nearly a year of citizen complaints nothing had been done about the issue. Help came in the form of Erin Brockovitch, yes, that Erin Brockovitch. She contacted expert Bob Bowcock, who independently tested the water and found it to be contaminated. Despite this, the residents’ complaints still not acted upon. Finally, residents contacted EPA water specialist Miguel Del Torsi, who pulled in a team at Virginia Tech, that determined the water coming from the taps did not only contain lead, but lead at levels TWICE what it takes to be deemed hazardous.
Flint has a population of about 100,000, nearly 30,000 are children and almost 9,000 of those are under the age of six. It has been recommended that all 9,000 of the children under age six be tested for lead toxicity. Of the children that have already been tested, close to 2,000 of them have, or have had lead levels that exceed the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) threshold of what constitutes lead poisoning. Lead is much more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children’s developing nerves and brains. The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be.
What does that level of toxicity mean for the children of Flint, including my nieces, nephews and cousins?
According to the World Health Organization;
“lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”
In short, many of these children may suffer from irreversible and chronic health conditions. As I mentioned before lead poisoning can be symptomless, but in higher doses the symptoms can include abdominal pain and cramping (usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison), aggressive behavior, anemia, constipation, difficulty sleeping, headaches, hearing loss, irritability, loss of previous developmental skills. Very high levels of lead may cause vomiting, staggering walk, muscle weakness, seizures, or coma. Parents have been watching their children suffer and it was completely preventable.
As if this wasn’t all bad enough the number of Coliform and now Legionella bacteria that has been confirmed to be in the water, with it even being found in the water samples taken from local hospitals, Legionella is the bacteria responsible for Legionnaires Disease, and has already been responsible for the deaths of nine people in the area, with another 87 testing positive for the bacteria. Legionella causes pneumonia like symptoms and can be hard to identify.
I mentioned earlier that I thought what happened in Flint may be a case of environmental racism. Environmental racism refers to the disproportionate amount of risk and environmental hazards that face communities of color. Some point to the failure of the levies during Katrina as an example of environmental racism. There’s no question that Flint is a city that is predominantly black and underprivileged and that city officials ignored complaints from not just residents but from scientific experts for years, leading to this crisis. I cannot tell you why city officials did not act, but I can tell you that a community that happens to be predominately black is now suffering the consequences on the part of that failure. As a father I cannot imagine my daughters suffering the same fate.