Roar writer Dani Jones argues for lead poisoning victims in Flint, Michigan to recieve generational, systemic educational and penal support.
The water crisis in Flint started in 2014 and made headlines around the world. It began when the city announced a new pipeline project to provide the city with water from Lake Huron. Problems arose when, during construction of the new pipeline, the city switched its water source to the Flint River.
The city had numerous problems with its water supply previously, as the river had been used an official dumping ground for industrial waste. But, shortly after the switch in supply, Flint residents noticed a change in the taste, colour, and smell of the water coming from their taps. Tests conducted in 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Virginia Tech indicated that the water contained dangerous levels of lead and the levels of iron were so high that it was beyond the capability of the instruments they were using to measure.
One might ask why the switch was made in the first place. Was there a water shortage in the city? Was there an issue with the Detroit water system that affected the supply of water to Flint? No. The switch was simply a cost-cutting exercise.
I was first alerted to the shocking situation in Flint through the same channel I recieve most international news – Twitter. Residents took to social media to beg for Federal intervention and provisions of bottled water.
Later, I watched Michael Moore’s 11/9 documentary. While the film primarily looks at the 2016 US Presidential Election and how Donald Trump came to be in power, Michael Moore heads to Flint to find out what went so terribly wrong. Poignant interviews in the film include those of Flint residents and medical personnel involved in assessing those who drank the contaminated water. One line stands out for me; a paediatrician looks down the lens of the camera and tells the viewer “there is no safe level of lead in the body”.
Children, particularly infants, are incredibly susceptible to lead poisoning. Lead can even pass from a mother to her foetus. Effects of lead poisoning include developmental delays and intellectual disabilities, irritability, weight loss, and fatigue. As if things couldn’t sound more grim for those affected by the water in Flint, there is growing evidence that the effects of lead poisoning can be seen for generations after the original victim was exposed.
Flint had more issues with its water than just lead. The supply switch led to an outbreak of Legionnarie’s Disease (a severe form of pneumonia), causing the deaths of twelve people and requiring over eighty more to seek medical treatment. The reason for the outbreak was failure to maintain a sufficient level of chlorine to disinfect the water flowing through the city’s taps.
To add insult to injury, there are even more systemic issues with the Flint water supply. Thousands of Flint residents are still receiving water through lead pipes. The level of lead in water samples tested since the state’s Governor declared the crisis resolved in 2018 reveal that though lead levels have decreased, they are still detectable. And, as mentioned previously, there is no safe level of lead in the water. The level of lead is now low enough that it does not legally require Federal intervention, and the provision of free bottled water has now ceased.
Officials in Flint have stated that the water crisis has been resolved – a claim which residents dispute. But the health problems currently being suffered by residents are only just beginning. The Flint school system, where teachers are among the lowest paid in the United States, is ill-prepared at best for an influx of children displaying signs of developmental delays and irritability. The percentage of children in the Flint public school system who qualify for for special education services has nearly doubled since the crisis began – up from 15% in 2014 to 28%.
The public school system is already vastly overstretched, understaffed, and underfunded. Without drastic support, I fear that the criminal justice system will soon be overwhelmed by those suffering from behavioural difficulties due to lead poisoning. A class-action lawsuit filed in 2016 accused the city of Flint of neglecting its duties. The lawsuit states that “students were denied assessments for education plans or behavioural intervention plans, and then were segregated from their peers, secluded and restrained, repeatedly sent home from school, expelled or arrested”. It’s clear that the system is not coping and officials seem to have no intention of offering additional support for Flint residents suffering long-term, generational consequences of lead poisoning.
Providing clean water to the residents of Flint in future is an important step, but it won’t un-do the damage that has already been done. Flint is heading for an inter-generational crisis and its government need to do more to support its people.