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Remembering the Flint Water Poisoning on Earth Day

For more than a year, state officials, beginning with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, dawdled and stonewalled as complaints from frustrated and concerned Flint residents mounted. Residents complained about the foul taste and color of their drinking water but the governor’s former spokesman, state and city officials and others, dismissive of the chorus of complaints, continued to insist that the water was safe to drink. Now we know that a decision by Snyder — and Darnell Earley, the emergency manager he appointed — to switch water sources has had long-term consequences for the health of Flint’s 100,000 residents.

The governor and his emergency manager engineered the switch of drinking water from the clean freshwater of Lake Huron to dirty and corrosive Flint River. The move, initiated in April 2014, was supposed to save $5 million. The order came from Gov. Snyder but a decision by state water officials to opt out of using corrosion prohibitors which would have cost a mere $50 a day, produced a man-made public health disaster that has affected the lives and health of many of Flint’s residents, particularly children.

Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who has been described as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, took the unusual step of sharing the results of her exhaustive study at a press conference. She found that the proportion of children under five in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood nearly doubled following city’s switch to Flint River water.

Corroded pipes in and around Flint, Michigan, led to one of the most volatile, man-made environmental health disasters in the nation's history. (Courtesy photo)
Corroded pipes in and around Flint, Michigan, led to one of the most volatile, man-made environmental health disasters in the nation’s history. (Courtesy photo)

The mother of two and director of Hurley Medical Center’s Pediatric Residency Program, Hanna-Attisha told CNN, “We had an ethical, professional, moral responsibility to alert our community (to) what was going on. … Our mouths were ajar, and we couldn’t believe that in 2016 now, in the middle of the Great Lakes, we couldn’t guarantee a population access to good drinking water.”

Hanna-Attisha found that children in Flint who were tested exhibited elevated blood-lead levels which jumped from 2.1 percent in the 20 months prior to Sept. 15, 2013, to 4 percent between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15, 2015. In certain ZIP codes, she said, the change was even more dramatic and troubling, spiking from 2.5 percent to 6.3 percent in children who were tested. The changes correspond closely to the timing Emergency Manager Earley authorized the switch.

Flint residents are dealing with the fallout from a lead poisoning tragedy that could affect them and their children for decades. Problems associated with exposure to lead are irreversible. Lead is a potent neurotoxin which can cause memory loss, irreversible brain damage, impaired development, cognitive dysfunction, speech impediments and other serious chronic conditions, particularly in children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even marginal lead exposure can cause behavioral and cognitive problems, including an increased tendency to exhibit violent behavior. Moreover, children affected by lead poisoning are seven times more likely to end up as a high school drop out of school and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system than those not exposed to lead. Moreover, the impact of lead exposure is irreversible.

To those who assume that the Flint poisoning represents a deviation, green supporters, climate experts and environmental justice activists point out that environmental racism and policy decisions made by federal, state and local lawmakers created a country dotted with thousands of other Flints, with black and brown communities intentionally poisoned by lead and other toxins.

There has sprung up a vibrant and spirited opposition to environmental racism and support for climate change.

“Fifty percent of people of color live within two miles of areas of pollution,” said Beverly Wright, executive director of Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “There need to be buffers. We need a special distribution of polluting facilities. The people least responsible are the most affected.”

Wright said those involved in environmental justice have a tough job fighting against corporations, utilities and government officials who are intent on decimating the environment. The professor said race is a predominant indicator that determines the exposure some communities receive to assorted toxins, chemicals and pollutants.

Leslie Fields, director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental and Community Partnership Programs, agreed.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier for the Black community,” she said “Our children have asthma, miss school, fall behind and end up in the school-to-prison pipeline. African Americans are disproportionately affected by climate change and are demanding action. Air pollution and climate change don’t just greatly impact health, they stifle our ability to grow economically.” According to Fields, the Sierra Club is monitoring the cumulative impacts. Climate change is manifested in illness from exposure to pollutants that drive climate change, physical displacement of individuals and families in the face of rising sea levels, catastrophic or destructive storms, economic and food insecurity, and malnutrition.”

Investigative Journalist Curt Guyette, whose work help expose the Michigan state government’s poisoning of Flint’s drinking water, writes that much of the problem with the deterioration of the water infrastructure can be attributed to a change in policy on the part of the federal government, which reduced funding for water and wastewater systems by 80 percent between 1977 and 2014.

“As a result of those cuts, consumers have been forced to bear most of the burden of paying for the repair and replacement of aging water infrastructure, causing rates to soar,” he said in a 2015 article titled, “In Flint, Michigan, Overpriced Water is Causing People’s Skin to Erupt in Rashes and Hair to Fall Out. “One particularly stunning survey of 100 municipalities by USA Today in 2012 found that water prices had doubled in more than a quarter of the cities since 2000, and even tripled in several others.”

And they’re going to continue to climb, he explained.

Experts estimate that it will take about $1 trillion, with half of that used to replace existing infrastructure, and the other half allotted to install new infrastructure to serve population growth and areas that currently aren’t receiving water.

With the federal government filling in only a fraction of the gaps, municipal systems’ solution of choice has been to dump rising infrastructure costs on customers by raising prices, Guyette continues, but cities have also been exploring other options, including privatizing their water systems and switching over to cheaper water sources, as Flint had done.

“Rarely, however, have the changes offered much benefit; frequently, they have made the situation worse,” he said.

The City of Flint has excavated 25,400 service lines in its effort to replace all lead service lines. Fewer than 5,000 are left to check, according to contractors.

Testing has continued to show that water quality has stabilized, and residents are encouraged to get their water tested. Water filters also are available as a more convenient option for Flint households. Filters, replacement cartridges, and water tests are free and delivered to your front door.

Nestlé Waters North America has been providing 100,000 bottles of free water each week to the residents of Flint since May 2018. The water is distributed from three help centers in the city, with more than 9.7 million bottles donated to date. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Nestlé has increased its donation of bottled water to the Flint with donations earmarked specifically for home delivery to those who are most vulnerable to the deadly virus.

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