In April 2014, Flint transferred its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. It was meant to be a temporizing, cost-saving measure. But what followed was one of the most devastating recent failures of public infrastructure and a heartbreaking example of how social inequity ultimately leads to public health crises.
To quantify just how bad the problem is, here’s a schematic from USA Today.
To add insult to obvious injury, the areas of Flint most affected, were disproportionately poor, communities of color.
Last weekend, I was fortunate to join other activists and Flint community members in an online panel discussion hosted by Black Public Media about the impact of the crisis and what people are doing to address it. This weekend, as the nation prepares to broadcast the latest democratic presidential debate from Flint, Michigan, I wanted to revisit what has and is happening there, who it affects, and what we can do about it.
1. Lead is toxic.
There are no safe levels in the blood and it can affect every organ system. Adults exposed to lead can have high blood pressure, joint or muscle pain, headaches, memory loss or mood changes. In utero exposure can result in miscarriage, premature birth, and low birth weight. Children who are exposed are at risk for learning problems, developmental delay, weight loss, and hearing loss. And the most disturbing data shows maternal exposure may even be transmitted to grandchildren, making the adverse effects of lead, generational.
2. Infants and children are more vulnerable to lead exposure from water contamination.
Infants and children can absorb more water-soluble lead than adults. And infants whose primary nutrition is reconstituted formula mixed with contaminated tap water, likely absorb the most.
3. Low-income, people of color are increasingly vulnerable to lead exposure.
- Aging public infrastructure in urban America means lead may leach into faulty pipes and disproportionately affect areas with concentrated poverty, which are more common in communities of color.
- Neighborhoods with high rates of food insecurity may lack access to foods high in calcium, Vitamin C, and iron, that decrease lead absorption and buffer potential exposures.
- High rates of unemployment and historical housing discrimination may contribute to low-income, communities of color disproportionately inhabiting older homes that increase household exposure to lead in chipping paint, dust, or soil.
- Lack of financial resources to purchase alternative water sources disproportionately expose poor people to contaminated tap water.
4. To fix this, more than clean water is necessary.
Access to clean water is essential to decrease water-based lead exposures but the magnitude of this exposure (2 years worth!), lead’s potent toxicity, and it’s long-term effects on cognition, behavior, and child development, will require wrap-around social services. That includes access to affordable, healthy food, education supports, behavioral health services, early childhood programs, and sustained investment in local infrastructure to mitigate the short and long-term impacts of these exposures.
Additionally low-income, communities of color should be prioritized to receive these services because they have been disproportionately impacted.
5. For more information about lead exposure for families who are affected or concerned:
- Visit the American Academy of Pediatrics Website OR
- Check out recommendations from Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician whose research helped expose the problem.
When things like this happen, and know it is happening all over the country, it’s important to take an honest look at what it means. And I don’t just mean environmentally.
Americans are only as free as the choices at our disposal. And when poor people and brown people have no choice but to take poison because of failures of public systems, systems that dismissed concerns raised time and again, it corrodes the promises on which our democracy is built. From contaminated tap water to neighborhoods that lack fresh produce or communities disproportionately subject to violence or school systems that fail poor, brown youth – it is inequity that is poisoning America and betraying our unalienable rights to life and liberty.
Make no mistake, this is about more than water. And while we can bottle short-term solutions now, it is time to take affirmative steps to close disastrous equity gaps in America that underpin future crises.