By now most Americans have heard about the water crisis in Flint, a Michigan city of about 100,000 with a majority black population and high levels of lead in its water. With companies like Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola offering to donate millions of bottles of water to the city’s residents, there is a danger that the story of Flint will be seen as a calamity that turned into a saga of hope through charity.
The prevailing story is that a bankrupt government, desperate to save a few million dollars, switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River and thereby ended a contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). The river water contains toxins and also lacks appropriate chemicals, resulting in Flint’s aging pipes leaching dangerous levels of lead into the water supply. Residents were also exposed to E. coli and Legionnaires’ disease from the tainted water. Additionally, the pipes are now permanently damaged, putting the cost of repair at a much higher number than the initial savings.
But some are suggesting that the switch in supply had a more perverse motivation than saving money. A Detroit news website called the Motor City Muckraker obtained information that revealed DWSD made several offers to sell Flint water at reduced rates that “would have saved the city $800 million over 30 years.” According to the Muckraker, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released internal correspondence from 2014 and 2015 after the story broke but “he refused to release e-mails from 2013, which would have showed why state officials decided to make the switch.” The report’s author speculated that perhaps “Snyder was motivated by a desire to break up DWSD and ultimately privatize it.”
An attempt to privatize water supplies in Michigan would not at all be surprising. Many Detroit residents recently struggled with failing to pay their water bills and as a result suffered a draconian reaction from the DWSD. The city responded by calling for proposals to privatize its water supply.
It is notable that a majority black city has suffered such a crisis. It is also important to note that undocumented immigrants in Flint have been among the hardest hit, denied access to the emergency bottled water because of ID requirements and fear of deportation. There is an undeniable element of environmental racism in this story. Of course, Gov. Snyder vehemently denies the accusation. In an interview on MSNBC, when asked if environmental racism was at play, he denied it, saying “absolutely not.”
But Snyder’s reputation is in tatters—many have accused him of nefarious activity and engaging in a cover-up. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called on him to resign, and others have filed lawsuits and held demonstrations. In fact, Snyder and other government officials for nearly two years had denied there were water problems in Flint.
It was only because a mother, who suspected that something in the water was causing health problems in her family, complained to an EPA lead scientist that any action was taken to address the problem. A volunteer team of researchers from Virginia Tech University conducted a study of Flint’s water supply and concluded that its safety was severely compromised. Siddhartha Roy, a Ph.D. student at the school, was one of the volunteers. In an interview on “Uprising,” he told me that “when we made our water results public, we were surprised and shocked to see [the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality] downplaying the effects of lead in water, ridiculing the results that all of us had released, and even questioning the results of a local Flint pediatrician.” He added, “They tried to discredit us researchers.”
Eventually, of course, the scientists were vindicated—but not before thousands of residents had been poisoned. It is tragic that ordinary people were compelled to join forces and fight government authorities to convince them that a major public health disaster was unfolding. The level of betrayal in Flint by a government against the very people it is supposed to protect is staggering.
And it’s not over. Despite the huge amount of national attention this story has gotten, including an op-ed by the New York Times, “Fix Flint’s Water System Now,” officials are bizarrely digging their heels in. Adding insult to injury, Flint residents are being asked to pay for the water that poisoned them. Even Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, initially reluctant to investigate the authorities, was shocked by this and said, “Words can barely describe this tragedy. Things went terribly wrong. ... I would certainly not bathe a newborn child or a young infant in this bad water, and if you can’t drink the bad water, you shouldn’t pay for it.”
But even if Flint’s water infrastructure were entirely rebuilt tomorrow, with clean water running through the pipes and city residents being compensated for long periods of paying for their own poisoning, the question remains: What about the damage already done?
“Lead is a neurotoxin. It’s one of the best-known neurotoxins on the planet,” said Roy, the Virginia Tech researcher. He added, “The Romans knew about it 2,000 years ago. There is no dispute that lead causes neurological, cognitive problems, drop in IQ points, and later on in life, it has even been linked to crime.”
Research by the University of Cincinnati last year confirmed what previous studies have shown: that early exposure to lead is strongly linked to crime. Scientists followed a group of 300 in a majority black Cincinnati neighborhood where people had been exposed to lead. They found that:
For those who had been exposed to lead as toddlers, even in small amounts, the scans revealed changes that were subtle, permanent and devastating. The toxic metal had robbed them of gray matter in the parts of the brain that enable people to pay attention, regulate emotions and control impulses. Lead also had scrambled the production of white matter that transmits signals between different parts of the brain, largely by mimicking calcium, an element that plays a critical role in brain development.
The lasting impact of lead poisoning on Flint’s children in particular is a tragedy of epic proportions. As a mother, I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak and fear that parents there are experiencing as they wonder if their children, the most precious beings in their lives, are permanently damaged.
With Flint’s crisis yet to be resolved, a similar disaster may be unfolding in Ohio. Residents of a small town called Sebring, near Cleveland, are being asked to refrain from drinking their water over concerns of lead contamination.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest report on national infrastructure in the U.S. gave the nation a D on drinking water. The report ominously warns that “much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.”
Having good water is a basic right—as water is the most basic necessity for human life. In the coming years, with climate change making access to fresh drinking water difficult, the U.S. and the rest of the world will be in enough trouble. But if our own water infrastructure is failing, the likelihood of more Flint-like crises is frighteningly high. We ought to study this crisis carefully, including how government officials stonewalled residents, doctors and scientists, and how the residents fought back.
No one should have to experience what the people of Flint have suffered.