As Lead Poisons City's Children, Mayor Declares State of Emergency

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As Lead Poisons City's Children, Mayor Declares State of Emergency

Study found dramatically elevated levels of the dangerous toxin in the blood of Flint, Michigan children under five

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, right, and City Administrator Natasha Henderson, address questions about adding supplemental phosphates to the city’s water during a news conference in December. (Jake May/Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, right, and City Administrator Natasha Henderson, address questions about adding supplemental phosphates to the city’s water during a news conference in December. (Jake May/Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

The mayor of Flint, Michigan on Monday night declared a State of Emergency over lead poisoning from the drinking water—after more than a year of public outcry that residents, particularly children, are being irreparably harmed by the dangerous toxin.

The newly-minted Mayor Karen Weaver issued the declaration in response to a "man-made disaster" sparked when the city, in April 2014, moved from the Detroit system to the Flint River "as a water source," according to a statement from her office. That decision last year was enforced by Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, who was appointed by the Republican Governor Rick Snyder.

"This switch has resulted in elevated lead levels in drinking water which prompted both the City and the County Health department to issue a health advisory earlier this year," said Weaver's office. While Flint returned to the Detroit water system in October following public concern—and years of official inaction—Weaver warned that "lead levels remain well above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion in many homes."

Weaver is seeking federal help in dealing with the crisis after scientists, city and county officials, and residents sounded the alarm.

A study released in September by researchers at the nearby Hurley Children's Hospital identified a "rise in blood lead levels of children less than 5 years old" living within two Flint Zip codes since the city began sourcing drinking water from the Flint River. Also in September, the city and county released health warnings after "hearing concerns from the medical community."

But many credit protests and organizing led by community groups such as "Water You Fighting For" for raising the profile of the emergency. In July, the People's Water Board Coalition staged a march from Detroit—itself the site of a water-related human rights crisis—to Flint demanding "clean and affordable water in Michigan."

A petition from advocacy organization Food and Water Watch, which garnered nearly 30,000 signatures, warned that "Flint residents are suffering from hair loss, lead poisoning and other health problems related to the chemicals in their drinking water."

Organizers argue that the water crisis is also an economic and racial justice issue, in a municipality that is 56 percent black and, according to the latest U.S. Census, one of the poorest cities in the country. What's more, the poisoning disproportionately impacts those city residents who can not afford bottled water and other protective measures.

Medical experts agree that lead poisoning poses a severe threat to public health, particularly for the youngest members of society. According to the World Health Organization, "Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system."

However, no one is safe. "Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage," the global body warns. "Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, as well as minor malformations."

Addressing these dangers, Flint residents in November filed a class action lawsuit against Snyder, as well as city, state, and numerous other officials, on behalf of tens of thousands of residents harmed by the "extreme toxicity of water pumped from the Flint River into their homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces, and public places."

"For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [residents] to extreme toxicity," the complaint charges. "The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant."

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