Lead poisoned children in Flint and other Communities: A problem that doesn’t go away

Lead poisoned children in Flint and other communities: A problem that doesn’t go away

Bob Sheak

August 19, 2018


Anna Clark has written an in-depth account in her newly published book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, of how the residents of Flint, Michigan, came to be affected by lead-poisoned water. Her analysis describes how the problem emerged over time and, when the first cases of water poisoning surfaced, how government officials resisted efforts by community groups to have the government address the problem. There is also another newly published book on the Flint story by Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician whose practice is located at a hospital in Flint. She and her colleagues were among the first people to gather evidence documenting directly the link between lead-poisoned water and harmful health effects. The title of her book is What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City. Both authors reconstruct the historical, political, and racial contexts in which the truly heart-rending and horrific story unfolds, and where it stands at the first part of 2018.

Hanna-Attisha’s book is uniquely valuable because it gives the reader an insider’s view of a physician and her colleagues treating children, some of whom have high levels of lead in their blood. On the basis of an analysis of the medical records, she and her team were able finally to produce evidence that demonstrated that the problem was widespread in Flint and having harmful, irreparable, health effects. Combined with other evidence of the problem, a point was reached that government officials could no longer continue to claim that the water was safe. To reach that point, however, it took many months of efforts by residents, an engineer, an EPA official, a journalist, and a score of others to force the Michigan state governor and other government officials to acknowledge the problem and to take some belated corrective actions to address the problem.

What makes lead so dangerous

The ingestion of lead has long been known to have harmful effects. Clark reviews the history of what is known about it, tracing it back as far as ancient Egypt. She describes why lead is so harmful focusing here on children but pointing out that adults – people of all ages – are also at risk from exposure.

“Once in the bloodstream, lead disrupts the normal operation of a child’s cells, particularly the way that they produce energy and communicate to the nervous system. Lead accumulates in the teeth, bones, and soft tissues…small, sustained exposures can build up to a severe amount of lead in the body. This can cause brain swelling, fatigue, anemia, vomiting, abdominal pain, irritability, aggressive and antisocial behavior, slowed growth, hearing problems, learning disabilities, diminished IQ, reduced attention spans, kidney failure, seizures, coma, and, in extreme cases, death” (p. 84).

The conditions in Flint

While the federal and Michigan state governments were late in acknowledging the problem and then in providing some material assistance to Flint, the problem remains one where thousands of families still do not have safe water to draw from their taps and the cost of the poisoned municipal water is among the highest in the state. In the meantime, Flint residents still rely on bottled water. There is also the dispiriting reality that the children and others who drank the lead-laced water at home, at school, in restaurants, at workplaces have harmful levels of lead in their bodies and will suffer the effects for the rest of their lives. The research is hardly reassuring. Hanna-Attisha puts it succinctly: “Lead exposure has been linked to almost every kind of developmental and behavioral problem, including school dropout rates and criminality” (p.155).

Not only in Flint

It is a problem that is not limited to Flint but one that affects thousands of communities across the United States, mostly cities, and particularly the areas within the cities where low-income people and African Americans live. After the Flint crisis made the news in 2015, a report by USA Today in March of 2016 found that “tests for cities, rural subdivisions and even schools and day care centers serving water to 6 million people have found excessive and harmful levels of lead” (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/11/nearly-2000-water-systems-fail-lead-tests/81220466).

In December 2016, Jerica Duncan reported for CBS News on a study of public health records by investigators at the Reuters News Agency that there “3,000 neighborhoods in America where children suffer from lead poisoning” from lead-tainted water. Duncan quotes Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City who said: “It’s a very pervasive toxic chemical and there’s absolutely no level of lead in the human body which is safe” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lead-poisoning-children-neighborhoods-us-flint-michigan).

Hanna-Attisha adds to this information. “There are an estimated six to ten million lead service lines in the country – many of them in older, low-income, minority-populated urban areas. And there are millions more fixtures with lead.” The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) was added as a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1991 and is designed specifically to protect residents from lead poison and other toxins. However, the “LCR did not require that the lead service lines or fixtures be systematically replaced.” She adds: “the LCR still did not deal in any way with lead exposure in daycare facilities and schools that get their water from a public water system” (p. 158).

The deeper roots of the problem

The Flint story and the problem of lead-poisoned water-systems in cities across the country are a manifestation of a larger problem, namely, of how our governments prioritize the interests of the affluent and rich and of corporations over other interests, certainly including the interests of those who have limited income, especially when they are black and brown. It is one of many problems that Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party in Washington and states like Michigan with Republican governors and/or legislatures want to ignore or to which they offer only the minimal responses, hoping that the problem recedes from public attention. And there is little doubt that it is a problem that the mostly white political base of Trump and the Republicans do not care about, or that most fiscally-strapped cities or towns care to address.

Hanna-Attisha offers the following assessment of the deeper roots of the lead-water crisis like the one in Flint. She writes:

“The crisis manifested itself in water – and in the bodies of the most vulnerable among us, children who drank that water and ate meals cooked with that water, and babies who guzzled bottles of formula mixed with water. The government tried hard to convince parents that the water was fine – safe – when it wasn’t. But this is also a story about the deeper crisis we’re facing right now in our country: the breakdown of democracy; the disintegration of critical infrastructure due to inequality and austerity; environmental injustice that disproportionately affects the poor and black; the abandonment of civic responsibility and our deep obligations as human beings to care and provide for one another. Along with all that – which is a lot already – it’s about a bizarre disavowal of honesty, transparency, good government, and respect for scientific truth” (p. 13).

While I agree with what Hanna-Attisha writes, I formulate the fundamental problem somewhat differently. In my studies, I find the roots of the problem can be traced back to our form of capitalism, dominated by mega-corporations, and the power of the rich undermine democracy and foster a culture that systematically fosters divisions among people and reduces empathy for our fellow citizens. This is a system that subordinates everything to profit and that is ravaged by deep-seated institutional racism. The outcome, and the relevance for Flint and cities across the US, is that more and more people and ecosystems are harmed and thought of as disposable or, at best, not worth much assistance.

There was resistance

At the same time, one of the uplifting implications of the Flint story as told by Anna Clark and Hanna-Attisha are that people will trust their own experiences despite what government officials tell them and speak out especially when their children’s health is endangered, making it difficult for government officials to ignore or dismiss their plight. And, as in the case of Flint, sometimes the victims of government malfeasance will receive the support of experts and journalists who document the problem, educate the public, influence government officials, and win, with and for the people, some redress of the harm that has been done.

The Flint Story

The city flourished economically in the 1930s up to the 1970s. It was the home of General Motors and a hundred other manufacturing businesses in the city, producing a wealth of products. Clark notes that Flint “had one of the highest per capital incomes in the nation” (p. 3). The city’s school system was “nationally renowned. It was at the same time a highly segregated place, to which nonetheless African Americans were drawn from southern states to Flint by the availability of jobs, though they were typically kept out of most jobs and shunted into the lower-paying, more demanding and hazardous ones. And systematic and sometimes violent residential segregation limited the housing options of African Americans.

By the early 1970s, Flint – and the country – also benefited from the passage of the environmental laws like the Clean Air Act. The Water Act helped to reduce the amount of toxic wastes being dumped into rivers like the Flint River (p. Clark, 28). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to enforce the laws. Then, in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 was passed into law, laying “out minimum quality standards and developed assistance programs to help drinking water systems meet them,” though it “depended upon utilities to self-monitor and self-report.”

The economic decline

However, along with cities across the Midwest, a process of deindustrialization unfolded, as manufacturing corporations closed their operations in Flint and other cities, moved to the South to avoid unionized labor, taxes, and regulations, and then subsequently moved to Mexico and later to China and other countries in South America, Asia, and elsewhere.

By the late 1970s and over the next decades, Clark writes, “…GM closed most of its plants in the city and eliminated almost all the local auto jobs. Smaller companies followed suit or simply shut down for good.” The city’s population steadily declined. Without jobs, some residents moved out of the city to the suburbs, some abandoned their homes, city revenues fell, the city’s debt increased, and the public schools and city services were underfunded (p. 8). On top of these developments, funding from the state was reduced. Clark writes: “…between 1998 and 2016, Michigan diverted more than $5.5 billion that it would ordinarily go to places such as Flint to power streetlights, mow parks, and plow snow. Instead the state used to plug holes in its own budget.” This meant for Flint, “a loss of $55 million between 2002 and 2014.” She adds that this “amount would have been more than enough to eliminate the city’s deficit, pay off its debt, and still have a surplus. But the money never came….” The economic situation in Flint was made even worse by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 that was rooted in a mortgage crisis in which thousands of people lost their homes, accompanied by “a major restructuring of the auto industry, and a crippling drop in tax revenue” (p. 5).

Adding to the misfortunes of Flint, the city was also strapped with an aging infrastructure. For example, Hanna-Attisha writes:

“Flint had miles and miles of old pipes underground that needed repair and replacement. In 2014 the city pipes were leaking between 20 and 40 percent of their load, which meant residents and business owners had to pay for those water losses. The average annual Flint residential water bill in 2015 was $864 – about $300 more than in any other city in Michigan. In fact, it was the highest in the nation” (p. 80).

Fewer resources available for environmental protection and other state programs

 The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) “lost almost a quarter of its salaried employees” and its drinking water office and lab were similarly affected, losing “8.7 percent of its budget over the course of a decade…while the lab lost 43 percent of its full-time staff” (Clark, p. 161). And, in general terms, the state’s ability to manage and address the issues besetting the cities and towns of Michigan deteriorated. According to Clark, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan last in its State Integrity Report Card.

 Some community efforts to deal with the damage

The pastor of the Joy Tabernacle Church, Rev. Alfred Harris, launched programs to fix up neighborhoods. Clark writes: “They covered over the vacant windows and doors ‘to take the abandonment look away,’ helping people to imagine what a healthy Civic Park could look like. They paid young men to mow lawns and board up empty homes…. The church created the Urban Renaissance Center to serve as a social ministry for single parents, seniors, ex-offenders-recovering substance abusers, and anyone else who walked in the door” (Clark, p. 6). And, Clark also reports that the University of Michigan’s Flint campus and Habitat for Humanity started to work alongside the church.

The state takes over.

Community action was hardly enough, given the scope of the city’s budget problems facing Flint and the weak economy. The first emergency manager was appointed by Republican governor John Engler in 2002. It’s important to recognize that the emergency-manager policy is undemocratic in that it replaces elected officials with unelected ones and that the policy reflects a right-wing ideological remedy that puts the financial responsibility of debt-burdened cities on local government and citizens. The emergency manager is “an outside official who is not constrained by local politics or the prospect of reelection bid will be able to better make the difficult decisions necessary to get a struggling city or school district back on solid grounds” (Clark, p. 14). Emergency managers have mainly, if not only, the negative mission to cut city expenditures to balance the budget, often privatizing city utilities and schools in the process. There is nothing in the emergency manager’s mandate or in the capacity of an emergency manager to address the basic problems of business and corporate abandonment of the city, to invest in the schools, hospitals, police and fire services of the city that have gone underfunded for decades, let alone to address vast infrastructural problems. Ideally what is called for is what Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates call in the title of their book “A Freedom Budget for All Americans,” requiring massive assistance in job creation, infrastructure renovation, support for unionization, higher minimum wage, low-cost housing construction, and higher taxes on the affluent and rich. But this is not in the political cards now. Flint was largely on its own – and governed by an unelected manager.

Clark writes: “The governor [Engler] appointed Ed Kurtz, a local resident and the president of Baker College, as the first emergency manager.” “The city then [in 2002] had 125,000 people, 8.3 percent unemployment, a deficit growing close to $30 million, and the dubious distinction of being the largest community in the state to get an intervention” (p. 125).

Kurtz “implemented new code enforcement measures for buildings and homes, cut the pay for the mayor and council members, and eliminated the health, dental, and vision benefits for most city officials. (Two years later, he reinstated some of the pay.)” There was more. He reduced contributions to pension system, “temporarily shuttered recreation centers, closed the ombudsman’s office, and worked with the largest union to agree to a 4 percent pay cut.” He also positively “approved more than $1 million for sewer and road improvements and raised water bills by 11 percent.” After almost two years, “Kurtz recommended ending the emergency” (125-126)

But then in 2011, while the economic and financial problems of Flint continued unabated and had been worsened by the economic recession of 2007-2009, the Michigan governor appointed another emergency manager was to take charge of Flint’s government. Clark writes that the emergency management system, as embodied in Public Act 4 and signed by Governor Rick Snyder, became one of the most expansive laws of its kind.” The goal was to reduce the city’s deficits through austerity measures. Under the new law, the emergency manager “for the first time, could reject, modify, or terminate contracts and union agreements.” Additionally, local governments were expected to pay the salaries of emergency managers (126). There were racial overtones in the new emergency process. “The communities affected,” Clark writes, “were nearly always majority black, including Flint. By 2017, 52 percent of Michigan’s black residents and 16 percent of Latinos had lived in cities governed by unelected authorities. Only 2 percent of white people had the same experience” (127).

It looked as though there would be a reprieve from the imposition of the emergency manager in November 2012, when the majority of Michigan citizens voted to overturn Public Act 4, with “[s]eventy five of Michigan’s eighty-three counties” supporting the revocation. However, the vote was nullified when the legislature passed a nearly identical version of Public Act 4 and Snyder signed Public Act 436 in December (128).

 The Water crisis and the options for Flint

 As the citizens of Flint suffered through their many travails, the safety and health of the city’s water system was of little concern. There is important history here. The city’s water had been supplied by The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for nearly fifty years, dating back to the spring of 1964 when the city had a population of nearly two hundred thousand residents, plus hundreds of industrial plants. The water supplied by the Detroit system came from the freshwater of Lake Huron. Clark describes how it worked. The Detroit water department drew water from Lake Huron, then treated and pumped the water for Flint at a plant near the shoreline of Lake Huron, delivering the water through a 120-inch pipeline to another pump station. She continues: “From there the flow was pushed through a smaller [service] line until it reached the city’s kitchen sinks. Flint’s own treatment plant, which it had used to treat its river water before joining the DWSD in the 1960s sat idle. It remained on hand only because the state required a backup water source for emergencies” (p. 14).

By 2013, there were three possible options with respect to the city’s water. One option was to continue using the Detroit water and find ways of subsidizing the water bills of residents with low incomes. Flint’s own government could not afford to do this without going further into debt, something that the emergency manager would not allow. And the state and federal governments had no interest in subsidizing Flint city or its residents, which would have conflicted with the right-wing ideology then prevalent in Michigan and increasingly in the U.S. Congress.

A second option was for Flint to join with neighboring communities to finance the building a newly planned water system operated by the Karegnondi Water Authority to pull 85 million gallons of water per day out of the Great Lakes. It was conceived as a way to bring costs under control and to be independent of the Detroit water system. When completed, the system, as touted by developers, would deliver raw untreated water, requiring Flint to reboot its old retired water treatment plant. Flint’s emergency managers gave the city’s mayor and council the authority to make the decision, and they moved to support going ahead with this option. Michigan’s state treasurer approved the plan (Clark, p. 17).

This was an option that did not make financial or ecological sense, although there were companies that stood to make profits from the project. Clark puts it this way. “It was also strange [project], since it involved building an entirely new drinking water system in a state that already had more than any other” (161). Furthermore, the terms of arrangement were punitive. Clark gives the following example: “If Flint should miss a single one of its annual bond payments, the KWA could seize the city’s treatment plant, plus 25 percent of its state revenue-sharing money, and it could also force the city to levy to get its share of the money” (165).

There was opposition from regional and national environmental groups who wanted to see more efficiency and conservation built into any water system being considered. The project promised none of this. And the cost was prohibitive, estimated at $300 million (162). However, state officials favored this plan and, as Clark reports: “So the state arranged a work-around: Flint’s share of money for the construction of the KWA was given a pass so that it did not count against the debt limit” [already reached], though it would add to the debt and would have a significant impact on the cost of the water (163). From a financial perspective, this option seemed counter-productive, to say the least.

This brings us to the third water-system option available to Flint, that is, to use water from the Flint River and to treat it at the City’s old water treatment plant. Indeed, this became the only option, after the decision was made to leave the Detroit water system and to join the planned KWA alternative which, as pointed out, would not be operational for several years. According to Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University, the KWA project also “effectively obligated the City to use the Flint River as the interim source of drinking water during the KWA construction” (Clark, 164).

The Water from the Flint River: Is it safe?

Officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality maintained the water was safe and announced the results of its first tests in May 2014, one month after Flint switched to the Flint river for its water, saying that, while the Flint River drinking water had residual chlorine and bacteria in it, the levels did not “violate the legal standards” (Clark, p. 32). But Flint residents were not convinced.

Early concerns of citizens

 Clark reports that “neighbors grew alarmed at the water that flowed from their kitchen faucets and shower heads. They packed public meetings, wrote questioning letters, and protested at city hall. They filled clear plastic bottles from their taps to show how the water looked brown, or orange, and sometimes had particulates floating in it. Showering seemed to be connected to skin rashes and hair loss. The water smelled foul. A sip of it put the taste of a cold metal coin on your tongue” (pp. 1-2).

Hanna-Attisha describes the experience of LeeAnne Walters and her young sons. “Just a few months after the water switch in 2014, Walters noticed that her three-year-old-twins, Gavin and Garrett, broke out in red bumps after they were given a bath. Gavin had immune deficiencies and was especially prone to problems. If he soaked in the bathtub for a long time, a scaly rash would form across his chest at the waterline.” The family members also experienced abdominal pain and bizarre hair loss (p. 55).

Another early indication that there was a problem with the water came in October 1,2014 when the local General Motors plant stopped using Flint water after workers noticed that the water caused corrosion in engine parts. (See Laura Orlando’s article, “Is Your Water Worse than Flint’s in the April 2016 issue of In These Times.)

The authorities said not to worry

“[T]he authorities,” Clark writes, ‘said everything was all rights and you could drink it, so people did.” Later: “Residents were advised to run their faucets for a few minutes before using the water to get a clean flow. As the months went by, the city plant tinkered with treatment and issued a few boil-water advisories. State environmental officials said again and again that there was nothing to worry about. The water was fine” (p. 2).

The gathering of evidence to prove the authorities wrong and that the water is poisoned

 But the situation did not go uncontested. There were a few people who became involved in the Flint water crisis whose contributions turned out to be crucial in producing the evidence that demonstrated finally that Flint’s water was poisoned with lead and that the evidence from the Michigan state environment agency and EPA was wrong. In the absence of the evidence collected independently of the government, government authorities would still be claiming that the water is safe.

The first efforts to document there is lead in the water

 Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, was one of those people who made vital contributions in the process of refuting claims by government officials. He is a long-term critic of the EPA and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) over their lack of interest in polluted drinking water systems. One of his projects for years had been on the problematic water system in Washington D.C., where he compiled evidence to show that the system was polluted with lead. Edward’s research showed there was high levels of lead in the water and he found “a correlation between the lead-contaminated water and a spike in fetal deaths and reduced birth rates” (pp. 107-108). In 2010, Clark writes, “a bipartisan congressional investigation into the D.C. lead-in-water crisis confirmed what Edwards and frontline community organizers had been arguing for years.” However, despite the evidence, nothing was done to fix the problem, And no one was held accountable. Hanna-Attisha makes the following points.

“Not only did nobody get punished for the D.C. crisis, some were promoted. What you need to know tonight is that, basically, scientists and activists tried to prove that children were harmed, but they couldn’t get the health data to show it. Lead was in the D.C. water for years. More lead than you could imagine” (p. 46).

But there were serendipitous outcomes in the Flint story, stemming initially from the publicity surrounding Edward’s involvement in D.C. and from the activism of a Flint resident who contacted him. This was LeeAnne Walters, whose family had been affected by the water. She had already been active in questioning officials and in refusing to accept their claims that the water was okay. As indicated earlier, she and her children were suffering from various rashes and other unusual symptoms. Her physician discovered that the lead levels in her twin boys had “soared” compared to tests done before the switch to Flint River water; however, he did not identify the cause and offered no meaningful solution.

As LeeAnne Walters searched for information on the water-related problems, she ended up calling Miquel Del Toral at the Chicago office of the EPA about her concerns. According to Hanna-Attisha, “[h]e personally arranged to have an independent test of the tap water in Walter’s home” (p. 38). Toral then leaked an 8-page report that indicated the lead levels in the resident’s water were high, contrary to what the MDEQ’s more general testing allegedly showed, and that the service line leading into her home was made of lead. He also noted that the city’s water testing was unreliable and that there was a lack of corrosion control, causing lead to break off from the service lines into the water going into homes like the home of Walters (pp. 111-112).

The matter of corrosion control

Still, the officials at the MDEQ insisted that the water was safe. And, another important point, the staff at the Flint water treatment plant were told that corrosion control was unnecessary, even though the river water “was more corrosive and difficult to treat than lake water.” Clark explains the importance of having corrosion control in Flint.

“Because America’s infrastructure is generally quite old, large systems are required to add corrosion control treatment to the water to keep the pipes from disintegrating. It extends the life of the pipes and, because it prevents metals from fouling the drinking water, it helps to protect public health as well” (p. 33).

The corrosion control treatment in municipal water systems is used in “about half of all American water companies, including the Detroit system. This involves adding orthophosphates, a corrosion inhibiter, to the water at the treatment plant. The orthophosphates “create a protective coating that helps keep metals from leaching into the water as it flows through the water mains (the large pipes that run under the street, carrying water to a neighborhood) and the service lines (the smaller pipes that branch off the main, connecting to individual dwellings).”

Without corrosion control treatment, the pipes are eaten away, especially when they are old and most especially when they are exposed to corrosive water, treated with chlorine or chlorides.” In such situations, the lead pipes eventually start to disintegrate and flakes of lead wash into the water. Corrosion is the result of large amounts of chlorides in the water that “break down the metals in water mains, service lines, water heaters, household appliances, and plumbing fixtures.” High chloride levels in the river water came from road salt (sodium chloride) used on Michigan roads as a deicer and from the chloride from agricultural runoff and wastewater. In addition, in Flint’s case, “the treatment plant added still more to the mix by using ferric chloride as a coagulant for the water” (p. 34). The high levels of chloride in the water made the “pipes rust, flake, and leak” (p. 34).

Opponents collect more evidence

LeeAnneWalters pursued the issue further, next contacting Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech. He gave her instructions on how to test the water for lead. Following his instructions, she collected thirty samples of the water from her home. The bottles were properly sealed and passed onto EPA’s Miguel Del Toral, who dropped them off at Edward’s lab in Dunham Hall at Virginia Tech. Edward’s lab analysis showed that “the lowest level tested at 300 parts per billion; the highest was more than 13,000 ppb; and the average was 2,000 ppb…. Even the low test far exceeded the federal action level…. the worst lead-in-water contamination that he had seen in more than twenty-five years” (110). Even at this point, officials at the MDEQ remained unpersuaded.

A reporter covers the story

Enter Curt Guyette, who had been a reporter for the Metro Times, a Detroit alt-weekly that was distributed in Flint until, under new conservative ownership, he was fired in 2013 (Clark, p. 113). He then “signed on as an investigative reporter with the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the only branch in the country to have a journalist on staff” (113). The position was supported by a Ford Foundation grant.

Guyette teamed up with Kate Levey, a local documentarian, to make a short film called Hard to Swallow: Toxic Water Under a Toxic System in Flint” (115). Flint neighbors in the film, like Melissa Mays, “said that she and other neighbors had heard for years about the pollution in the Flint River and they were also concerned about high water bills. LeeAnne Walters appeared in the film, recounting what she had learned from Miquel Del Toral and Marc Edwards, namely, that, as Clark reports, “the change to a more corrosive water source, without adequate treatment, caused the protective coating in the city’s pipes to break down. This led to her son’s diagnosis. She showed his medical report on camera….” (115-116). In addition to the film, Guyette wrote a story on July 9, 2015.

The story was picked up by Michigan Public Radio, headquartered in Ann Arbor. Its programming reached about 450,000 listeners each week. The radio coverage of Flint’s water included an interview by Lindsey Smith with Brad Wurfel, a principal spokesman for MDEQ. Wurfel continued to claim that LeeAnne Walter’s “situation was an outlier and not representative of Flint homes.” Wurfel insisted that there was no compelling evidence that “there is any broad problem with the water supply freeing up lead as it goes in homes” (pp. 117-118). Hence, state officials, including the governor Snyder, continued to dismiss the evidence from Marc Edward’s lab tests of LeeAnne Walter’s home. Clark writes: “The MDEQ kept pointing to its test results of 169 water samples [later determined to be manipulated], which, it claimed, were proof that there was nothing to worry about. On its side, the community had samples from LeeAnne Walters’s home that had been analyzed by Virginia Tech, plus a smattering [of tests] from other residents who had requested free tests from the city” (131). For many months, the MDEQ went on insisting that its data were valid and rejected evidence that showed otherwise.

More evidence collected

The next crucial step in gathering evidence came from Curt Guyette. As Clark relates it, he had access to grant money at the ACLU that could be used for expert research. He had the idea of using the money to pay for 100 samples of the water from residences, though it would only take 50 samples to represent a valid test. Edward and his students would analyze the samples. Each test, Clark reports, would cost $70 (p. 132). In the meantime, Edwards obtained “an emergency stipend from the National Science Foundation.” In his application for the stipend, Edwards wrote, as quoted by Clark:

“An independent citywide test could ‘help inform the current policy debate regarding strategies for dealing with cities that have gone bankrupt, as well as the discussion of access to safe and affordable drinking water as a basic human right” (p. 132).

The decision was made to use the money from the NSF, because it had the reputational link to pure science. Guyette became instrumental in finding the means to collect the samples. He contacted the Coalition for Clean water and one of its leaders, Rev. Alfred Harris. Guyette also recruited 30 students “who formed what became the Flint Water Study group” (p. 133). They “distributed three hundred sampling kits to the organizers in Flint, conducted tests at businesses and homes while visiting the city, and planned tests in Detroit to compare different water systems.” Grad student William Rhoads hosted an instructional video on YouTube that showed the coalition how to collect samples and volunteers passed on their training to their neighbors. The process was methodical, “breaking down the city by zip codes as they coordinated deliveries and pickups” (pp. 133-134). Remarkably, Clark reports, “In a little over two weeks, the coalition distributed all 300 of the lead-sampling kits to Flint residents and collected back 277….” (135). She continues:

“Analysis of the kits showed that the poison was spread across the entire city. The study confirmed what should have been obvious: when corrosive water moves through lead pipes and plumbing, and it isn’t treated with corrosion control., a lot of lead ends up in the water. That’s especially true if the pipes are old, leaky, oversized, and cross long stretches of vacant land” (136).

“…the water samples had 26.79 parts per billion of lead in them, well over the federal action levels and nearly three times the safety standard of the World Health Organization (10 ppb). All ages, all income levels, and all ethnicities were affected by contaminated water, but not evenly….The highest tested sample came in at 1051 ppb, and in a couple of hard-hit zip codes, one in five home had high lead” (136).

Presenting the evidence to the public, but state officials are not swayed

On September 15, 2015, activists, scientists, professors, students, preachers gathered outside Flint’s city hall to “formally present findings from the citywide water test” (Clark, 138). Edwards (and his team) estimated that “the amount of lead in the water of about five thousand Flint homes exceeded standards set by the World Health Organization.” Zip codes in the central belt of the city had the most lead, with many samples exceeding 100 ppb. Flint’s water had high levels of lead, with an overall measure of 27 ppb, which is “almost twice the federal action level, that is, the level at which the government is expected to intervene in ways to ameliorate the problem. There was “excessive lead in every zip code (p. 139).

The state again was not moved to seriously address the problem. Clark writes that the state “tapped an unnamed donor to purchase fifteen hundred faucet filters” (141), but still refused to accept the evidence that Flint’s water contained unacceptable levels of lead.

The breakthrough

The next crucial, and finally compelling, links in the efforts to find or create evidence that state officials could not ignore came from pediatrician Mono Hanna-Attisha, and her friend, Elin Betanzo, a hydraulic engineer with prior experience working on water issues for the EPA in Washington D.C. They were to become the crucial final links in making that case that the Flint water was dangerous to the health of those who used the water, it was an emergency, and that the government had an obligation to address the problem.

Hanna-Attisha worked at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, where she trained medical students and treated some of Flint’s poorest families (Clark, 143-144). As the water crisis unfolded, her objective was to gain access to the medical records of the children in Flint and in the rest of the county. After many tries, the Genesee County Health Department released its blood-lead data in the form of individual patient files, one file for each patient. Flint City is in Genesee County. The pediatrician also obtained data from the state to reanalyze. Once the data were in hand, Hanna-Attisha and her research assistant “sorted through 1,746 test results for Flint children and 1,640 records for children elsewhere in Genesee County.” Betanzo and Edwards helped to clarify some of the methodological questions and how to organize the data for public presentation.

Going public with the new evidence

Hanna Attisha presented the findings from this analysis at the Hurley Medical Center on September 24, 2015, to about sixty people. She stated that, since the water switch in April 2014, “there was not only more lead coming out of Flint’s taps, but also much more lead in the blood of Flint’s children.” And, moreover, “In just eighteen months, the percentage of children under age five with high blood-levels had jumped from 2.1 percent to 4 percent.” In the two zip codes with the highest blood-lead levels, both with large African-American populations, the percentage was 6.3 percent. She advised mothers to breast feed rather than use formula, which required water (Clark, 145).

State initially rejects the new evidence, but then accepts it

But the state still refused to accept the new data and insisted Hanna-Attisha’s data were unscientifically manipulated to create the appearance of a problem where none existed. Clark writes: “A spokesman for Governor Rick Snyder alleged that she had ‘spliced and diced’ the data. Brad Wurfel called her claims ‘unfortunate’” (145). It seemed momentarily that the standoff would continue and there would be no assistance from the state or from the federal government. However, journalists at the The Detroit Free Press helped break the stalemate. The newspaper got access to the data the state’s own test data, and, in a stunning report, showed that the MDHHS [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] was misinterpreting its own findings. “The state’s own numbers showed that Flint’s blood-lead levels had worsened since the spring of 2014” (147).

Then, on October 1, 2015:

“Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, began communicating with Hanna-Attisha. Her staff compared the two studies and the agency’s epidemiologists revisited their research…. her staff had come to agree with the pediatrician.” (p. 147).

At a subsequent news conference, Wells made it clear that “the pediatrician working in Flint was right after all.” Clark emphasizes that this “was the state’s first serious accession to what residents had been saying all along: the water was poisonous” (p. 148).

Public officials declare a public health emergency

Then there was a cascade of events. Here is a list of what Clark reports on page 148 of her book.

  • “…the Genesee County commissioners declared a public health emergency, citing Hanna-Attisha’s study, the Free Press report, and Governor Snyder’s cautious concession that ‘it appears that [water] levels could be higher or have increased.”
  • Flint city hall told residents to stop drinking the water
  • “Volunteers were already delivering bottled water to schools that had turned off their water fountains, and over at the Mission of Hope homeless shelter, Reverend Bobby Jackson was running a water distribution site while working to raise the $1,700 that the shelter owed in unpaid water bills.”
  • Genesee County sheriff “began providing inmates housed in a Flint jail with bottled water and with food that required no water to cook.”
  • The State committed $1 million to purchase filters – though there would be no widespread notification campaign about their availability.

Flint is switched back to Detroit water from Lake Huron

Then on October 8, 2015, “Governor Rick Snyder announced that Flint would finally be reconnected to the Detroit system” (153). The bill for the reconnection, $12 million, would be divided among three parties – $6 million from the state, $4 million from the Mott Foundation, and $2 million from the city (154). The governor creates a task force to investigate what went wrong

A week after the switchover to Detroit water, Governor Snyder announced that “five experts in public health, water management, and the environment would come together to scrutinize what had gone wrong” (157). The investigation went on for three months, involving interviews, a study of documents and trips to Flint. The Task Force found that “most of the blame went to the MDEQ for one failure after another, including a culture of ‘minimalist technical compliance’ that took a bare-bones approach to water regulation and public safety.” And it criticized the agency for its attempts to discredit those who were concerned about the water (157-158). There was media coverage.

In November Flint citizens elected a new mayor, Karen Weaver, a psychologist by training who was backed by Flint’s influential church leaders. She declared a state of emergency over the water crisis (159). Two months later in mid-December, Michigan Radio aired an hour-long documentary, called “Not Safe to Drink.” The documentary focused on LeeAnne Walters’s story, and it made good use of what reporter Lindsey Smith called ‘the intimacy of the audio narrative’ while losing none of the technical background. LeeAnne showed Smith her family’s water stash – 40 gallons that they replenished once a week for drinking, cooking, and bathing the twins, filling the rub with one heated pot of store-bought water at a time,” noting that it was a time consuming and expensive process (p. 160).

Finally, Michigan’s governor declares a state of emergency in Flint and apologizes

On January 5, 2016, Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency, which unleashed a host of interventions. The declaration “allowed the state to act: soldiers and airmen from the Michigan National Guard arrived in Flint, tramping in their laced-up boots and camouflage uniforms…. In a robust outreach, they went door-to-door to some thirty-three thousand homes, delivering free water, filters, and water-testing kits to residents. They also staffed new water distribution sites – first at Flint’s five fire stations and eventually at nine locations, one in each city ward. Places such as the Masonic Temple in downtown Flint offered free blood tests. A mobile health clinic rolled through town. Governor Snyder also asked President Barak Obama to designate Flint as both a federal emergency and a federal disaster, which would bring still more resources to the city to manage the crisis, including grants and low-cost loans to pay for home repairs and business losses, and recovery coordination from the Federal Emergency Management Agency” (p.167). Obama did declare a federal emergency in Flint (Hanna-Attisha, p. 304).

Some recompense for Flint

In his state of the union address in the winter of 2016, governor Snyder admitted that government had failed Flint. He promised to ask the legislature to allot $28 million in aid to meet Flint’s immediate needs, with $22 million from Michigan’s general fund and the balance from federal sources” (183).

Furthermore, there were two victories from lawsuits that benefited Flint. In one case:“ Almost three years after the ill-fated water switch, a federal judge approved a historic settlement in the class action lawsuit filed by Melissa Mays [one of the Flint residents affected by the poisoned water], the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the ACLU of Michigan….As part of the deal, the state agreed to pay $87 million for the city to locate eighteen thousand lead and galvanized steel water lines and replace them with copper by 2020, at no cost to homeowners….The state was also obliged to put an additional $10 million in reserve for potential cost overruns and emergencies, and to pay $895,000 to cover the plaintiffs legal costs.”

(You can read a detailed list of what the federal judge required at: https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2017/03/28/judge-flint-water-lawsuite-settlement/99731876.)

And, in the meantime (not indefinitely), the state would keep water distribution sites open, per the settlement, unless demand tapered off (p. 190). It threatened to close the sites in mid-2018.The legal settlement to replace Flint’s service lines was “supplemented by an additional $100 million that came through from the federal government, which included a law change that allowed Michigan to forgive the $20 million that Flint owed in water loans, dating back to 1999. This meant that the city would be able to undertake the wholesale replacement of its pipes, both lead and galvanized steel. It was an almost unprecedented public works project. To date, Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, were believed to be the only major cities that had fully removed their aging lead-based service lines” (198). However, as of the summer of 2018, only 800 lead service lines had been replaced.

The other legal victory came in April 2018 “in a partial settlement for a separate class action case, the state agreed to spend $4.1 million to create a school-based screening program for tens of thousands of children who were exposed to the water. Directed by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, it would help determine the health and special education needs of the children, and it would also provide training for school staff to better identify children who may be harmed by lead” (190-191). Criminal charges and indictments

In April, 2016, two officials employed by the MDEQ, “Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby, faced charges of misconduct, neglect of duty, tampering with evidence, and violations of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. They were accused of impeding an investigation into the Legionnaires’ outbreak [not discussed in this post], which later brought involuntary manslaughter charges. ‘We allege and we will prove that Mr. Busch and Mr. Prysby altered test results which endangered the health of citizens and families of Flint,’[Attorney General] Schuette declared. Busch in particular had falsely claimed to the EPA that the Flint plant had optimized corrosion control, and both men were charged with ordering Michael Glasgow, the utilities administrator, to alter the 2015 report on lead in the city’s water to misleadingly lower the levels.” They were suspended from their jobs.

There were additional indictments in July, when “six state employees were hit with criminal charges, three at the MDHHS and three at the MDEQ.” The charges in these cases dealt with “burying an epidemiologist’s report that showed “a spike in blood-lead levels in Flint’s children after the city’s water switch, deleting emails about the report, ignoring its findings” (192).

There were more indictments. At the end of 2016, emergency managers Darnell Early and Jerry Ambrose were variously indicted for false pretenses, obstructing an investigation, and involuntary manslaughter” (192). In June, 2017, “Nick Lyon, the director of MDHHS and a member of the governor’s cabinet, was accused of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office for ‘taking steps to suppress information illustrating obvious and apparent harms, allegedly allowing a public health crisis to continue. Dr. Eden Wells, the agency’s top medical executive, was accused of misconduct, obstruction of justice, providing false testimony, and threatening to withhold funding from a Flint group investigating the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Later, she too faced an involuntary manslaughter charge” (193).

Hanna-Attisha writes:

“In the past six months [of 2017], more than fifty lawsuits had been filed, and the first criminal charges were announced – against two state officials, Stephen Busch and Mike Prysby in the drinking water division of MDEQ. There were six charges altogether, including misleading the EPA, manipulating water sampling, and tampering with reports. MDEQ received the most indictments and charges. Besides Bush and Prysby, the top drinking-water regulator, Liane Shekter-Smith, was fired” (p. 311-312).

A decision to stay with Detroit water

“…at the end of 2017 Flint decided to stick with the Detroit water department, forgoing the Karegnondi Water Authority entirely. The city was still responsible for the $7 million annual payment for the KWA bonds, but in exchange for signing a thirty -year contract, the Detroit utility – now restructured as the Great Lakes Water Authority, or GLWA – agreed to credit that sum to Flint’s account….The deal, approved by Flint’s council, included funds for relieving high water bills and a promise by the governor to put a city representative on the GLWA board” (197).

Some positive undertakings

Clark closes her book on a positive note. She writes: “New infrastructure was being laid throughout the city. People had better access to health care, thanks to expanded Medicaid and other services.” There was also “a cascade of ambitious investments in Flint. An auto supply manufacturer broke ground on the first such facility to come to the city in about thirty years: the colossal Buick City Complex was being converted into a factory for Lear Corp., which was set to make car seats for General Motors. It would create up to six hundred jobs. Downtown, the historic Capitol Theatre, vacant for two decades, reopened after a $37 million renovation brought its glittering marquee back to life. The Flint Institute of Arts went through an enormous expansion, adding a wing for contemporary crafts and creating a multipurpose maker space where visitors could watch glass and ceramic artists at work” (212-213).And a state grant that, part of the water recovery response, “brought a youth basketball league back to the city after a fifteen-year absence.”

And there was more good news. The first Flint Literary Festival debuted with the theme of ‘Flight,’ featuring Christopher Paul Curtis, a city native and a Newberry Medal-winning author who often wrote about his hometown. And a children’s education center opened on Gladwin Street, in a brand-new facility built on the site of former elementary school. With space for more than two hundred Flint children, it was designed to work with those who had been most exposed to lead-laced water” (213).

It is possible

Both Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan have replaced all their lead service lines (Hanna-Attisha, p. 178).

But some lousy consequences of the water crisis cannot be ignored

As pointed out earlier in this post, lead poisoning may be mitigated in some cases but cannot be cured. Most residents still do not have safe water. And most of the city’s lead-lined pipes remain in place. The sad facts are that all of the 99,000 or so residents of Flint have been affected one way or another by the poisoned public water, and at least 5,000 children have elevated lead-blood levels. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report in February 2017 that argued the root causes of Flint’s drinking water crisis lie in historic and systemic racism and called for the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationwide/midwest/ct-michigan-civil-rights-panel-flint-water-crisis-racism-20170218-story.html#). But now a compromised and weak federal EPA is being gutted by the Trump administration, as it urges budget cuts for the agency (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/07/20/trump-guts-epa-within-watchdog-reports-blasts-agency-related-flint-water) and there is little hope for any significant “truth and reconciliation.” Matthew Kovac poses the question of whether the “Flint Water Crisis [is] a Crime Against Humanity?” (http://counterpunch.org/2017/07/12/is-the-flint-water-crisis-a-crime-against-humanity). All the while, the Trump administration and the Republican Party want to see the issue fade away.

Lead poisoned water is a problem of national scope and little is being done about it in most places. Bear in mind, that the confluence of actors and events that forced government authorities to address Flint’s water crisis is unlikely to happen in many other places. It’s a rare occurrence that unfolded spontaneously and in response to unplanned conditions and events. And, even in Flint, we must remember that the people continue to suffer the effects of lead poison and the lack of clean municipal water. Hanna-Attisha leaves us with a statement that perhaps best summarizes the current reality: “Too many kids are growing up in a nation that does not value their future – or even try to offer than a better one” (p. 324). After all is said and done, Flint is an example for us, good and bad, but one that gives us ideas and examples of what has to be done – if we have a sense of humanity and the common good.

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