Flint Water Crisis: A Story of Environmental Racism

In April of 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Filled with industrial chemicals, waste, sewage, and road salts, this river was undoubtedly unfit for drinking. Immediate complaints about its unusual odor, taste, and color were ignored. The local government turned a blind eye, issuing a public statement saying, “Flint water is safe to drink.”

It is now April of 2016. Two years later, the city of Flint bears an inevitable association with ‘lead poisoning’. The Flint water crisis resulted from the confluence of shortcomings on multiple fronts: Governor Rick Snyder’s sluggish response, the Environmental Protection Agency’s unwillingness to aid, and the faulty investigation of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

The crisis has incited turmoil in the political sphere. Snyder failed to handle the issue, municipal leaders ignored immediate health concerns, and the Republican-led Congress did not contribute a single dollar to aiding Flint. The onslaught of political debate has overshadowed the dire health situation that underlays this lead-poisoning crisis and obscures the real leaders who can drive Flint’s recovery.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and her team of doctors at Hurley Medical Center found startling levels of lead in the blood of Flint’s children that they treated. The publication of her research forced the dismissive local government to acknowledge the water crisis in the fall of 2015, more than an entire year after the city switched its water source.

This delay may have caused irreparable harm to 8,000 children. Even the tiniest bit of lead can profoundly affect young children because their bodies are still developing. Lead exposure can damage nervous systems–affecting growth, behavior, and intelligence. It is also linked to problems with attention, motor coordination, and violent behavior.

Unfortunately, evidence for such consequences is obsolete. Behavioral and mental health implications may take years to manifest, so it is difficult to estimate the scope of this problem. However, it could affect an entire generation’s culture and life chances.

If lead poisoning is tied to aggressive behavior, rates of crime and violence could spike in ten or twenty years. The debilitating impact on a child’s intellectual development can lead to lifelong learning disabilities. And disrupting physical development can place more obstacles than those that already exist.

The water crisis’s effect on children will inevitably determine Flint’s future allocation of resources, especially in the realm of education; it costs nearly double to educate a child with special needs.

What’s most devastating about this situation is that Flint residents were already suffering from poverty and resource deficits. Investing funds, time, and resources into the water crisis–and its implications–takes away from Flint’s other needs: education development, access to healthcare, aid for homeless shelters, and basic infrastructure.

Since the media coverage of the contamination escalated along with public outrage, progress has been made. On January 16th of this year, President Obama declared a state of emergency, appropriating $5 million in aid for Flint and the surrounding county. $28 million has been allocated to Flint by Snyder for emergency state spending. Doctors at the Hurley Medical Center are focusing on improving childhood nutrition and expanding education programs like Head Start, a federally-funded preschool program for low-income students.

A few weeks ago, Snyder delivered a 116-page chronicle of how the water crisis came about. “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice,” it declared.

This problem exemplifies an all too familiar American reality: environmental racism. Flint’s residents are 57% black, and 40% live below the poverty line. This is an impoverished, majority-black community that faced immense inaction from the American bureaucracy. If the United States is serious about eradicating health disparities, particularly among marginalized groups, this kind of preventable crisis cannot be repeated.

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