Antipathy to environmental protection and disdain for the government’s role in protecting the public’s well-being have been prominent themes of the Republican Party in the era of the Tea Party. The scandal of toxic levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s municipal water supply reveals how dangerous these ideas become when put into practice. Thousands of children in Flint are now facing the lifelong and largely irreversible consequences of lead poisoning due to state and local leaders’ criminal disregard for their health.
Two employees from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) have resigned over the scandal, and more are expected to follow. Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Genesee County on January 5, because of the water contamination. But Flint residents have taken to social media calling for the arrest of Governor Snyder (using hashtags such as #InvestigateGovSnyder, #IndictGovSnyder, #ArrestGovSnyder, #PureMichigan) who appointed the Flint emergency manager directly responsible for the tragedy. Meanwhile, according to Democracy Now!, “Michigan activists are planning to hold a tribunal on Flint water poisoning and the continued shutoffs of drinking water in Detroit, in the coming weeks.” Federal prosecutors are now investigating the saga.
How Flint’s Leaders Poisoned Their Own Constituents
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In April 2014, to save money, the unelected emergency manager of Flint, Michigan (the same one who had shut off the water of residents too poor to pay their water bills), who had been appointed by Snyder, switched the city’s water source from Detroit, which gets its supply from Lake Huron, to the Flint River, well known to be severely polluted. This occurred despite the fact that avoiding Flint water had long been considered an essential ritual of living in Flint.
Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the water; it was visibly cloudy, tasted terrible and reeked of a foul odor. Stop me if you’ve heard this scenario before, but city and state officials’ response for several months was to deny that there was a problem. In the fierce winter cold of January 2015, protesters marched to city hall to challenge “plummeting water quality, soaring water rates” and police that were arresting citizens for “water theft.” Well more than a year after the problem began, Brad Wurfel, spokesman for MDEQ and one of those forced to resign, told a reporter: “Let me start here – anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”
The federal Lead and Copper Rule requires that all large public water systems maintain a program to control levels of lead in drinking water caused by corrosion. Flint River water was known to be highly corrosive to lead and iron piping. It was entirely predictable that lead would leach out of old plumbing systems inside the homes and the city service lines connected to them.Nonetheless, public officials made the switch without any measures taken or even a plan to reduce the water’s corrosiveness.
When it was revealed that the MDEQ had failed to require such a plan, it then proceeded to deny and cover up its own incompetence. Water samples taken in February 2015 by the University of Michigan and private citizens showed extremely high levels of lead, which were reported to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In March, Flint resident LeeAnn Walters had observed her 4-year-old son was breaking out in rashes, not growing, and his hair was thinning. An EPA employee helped her gather water samples under strict protocol to send to a Virginia Tech professor. The World Health Organization considers the acceptable level of lead in water to be 10 parts per billion, the EPA, 15 parts per billion. Test results from Virginia Tech showed average lead levels in Walters’ water were 2,429 parts per billion. One sample showed 13,200 parts per billion. The threshold for declaring water hazardous waste is 5,000 parts per billion. Walters’ son’s blood lead levels had tripled. When queried by an EPA employee, MDEQ staff said that the cause of lead in Walters’ water had been found to be “lead sources in her plumbing.” It was a complete fabrication. Walters had new, plastic, lead-free plumbing installed in her home.
Over the next several months, in meetings and internal memos, MDEQ employees mocked the EPA employee and apparently “arranged” with EPA bureaucrats to have him taken off the case; they publicly and condescendingly dismissed the test results from Virginia Tech, and labeled the entire saga “near-hysteria,” and concern about it “irresponsible.” Gov. Rick Snyder’s office issued an official statement declaring that the water from the Flint River was safe, but that, “some families with lead plumbing in their homes or service connections could experience higher levels of lead in the water that comes out of their faucets.”
The MDEQ’s arrogant and defiant posture succeeded in drawing a curtain over what they had done, until a team at Hurley Medical Center, led by pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, showed that the number of children with abnormally high levels of lead in their blood had doubled since the water supply was switched to the Flint River. Then it was Hanna-Attisha’s turn to be denigrated by state and local officials.
The Lifelong Burden of Lead Exposure
The consequences of lead exposure are varied, insidious, long-term, and include anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and immunotoxicity. But the most profound are the neurologic consequences, which are basically permanent brain damage, such as loss of intelligence and behavioral disorders, including aggressive, dysfunctional and violent behavior. Exposure to lead during pregnancy even reduces the head circumference of infants, and brain gray matter in areas responsible for things such as impulse control and executive functioning.
Health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have for years stated that no amount of lead exposure is safe, which, put another way means, any amount of lead exposure constitutes lead “poisoning,” which is somewhat at odds with any standard of “acceptable levels” in drinking water that is above zero. Furthermore, it is also at odds with official CDC guidelines that consider a blood level of lead below 5 ug/dl as acceptable.
This fact has had an exclamation point added by recent research showing even tiny amounts of lead are associated with a measurable loss of IQ. In a recent study, every 0.19 ug/dl of lead in the blood of teenagers was associated with a loss of IQ of 1 point.
In the United States, the average blood lead level of preschoolers is about 1.3 ug/dl, which means that even children with no discernible lead exposure are experiencing a loss of about 7 IQ points due to the low levels of lead in their blood. It is a virtual certainty that the thousands of children in Flint will experience much more significant intelligence losses and behavioral disorders.
In December 2015, Flint’s newly elected mayor, Karen Weaver, called the situation a human-made disaster and declared a state of emergency after Hurley doctors found even stronger evidence that Flint homes with the highest levels of lead in water corresponded to the highest levels of lead in the blood of children.
But even this research underestimated the risks. The children tested were between the ages of 1 and 2. But exposure during the period from conception to age 6 months is even more dangerous, Hanna-Attisha told the Guardian. “Lead is only detectable in the blood for 30 days after exposure,” the Guardian reported. It mimics calcium, and then settles in the bones. So, Hanna-Attisha said, “many children may not have had elevated lead levels at the time of testing, but if they had been exposed previously, the damage could already have been done but remained undetected.”
Hanna-Attisha’s group, supported by the county health department and a coalition of health professionals, finally left the MDEQ nowhere else to hide. She described the situation as an “emergency … alarming … gut wrenching.”
Lead isn’t by any means Flint’s only water contaminant. Lead doesn’t necessarily discolor water or make it smell and taste terrible. Bacteria can do that, and so can excessive use of chlorine to treat bacteria. The city started adding extra chlorine to the Flint water to kill high bacteria levels. Excessive levels of breakdown products of chlorine, collectively known as trihalomethanen (TTHM), was acknowledged to be plaguing Flint water by the city within several months after the switch.Chronic exposure to TTHM (one of which is the antiquated anesthetic chloroform) can precipitate cancer, plus many of the same health consequences as lead. In the winter of 2015, the city sent a bizarre, inaccurate and worthless notice to Flint residents claiming the water was safe to drink but warned those with “a severely compromised immune system, [who] have an infant or are elderly” that they “may be at increased risk and should seek advice about drinking water from your health care provider” because of TTHM.
That’s like saying to Flint residents its OK to smoke for a while because cigarettes don’t kill you for several years. And I can guarantee that the number of health-care providers who could give any meaningful advice about how much TTHM is safe to drink is zero.
Apologies Aren’t Enough
A task force set up by Governor Snyder concluded that MDEQ demonstrated a “minimalist approach” to regulatory oversight, and established a “tone of scorn and derision” toward the public, including outside water and health experts who had tried to warn them.
“Flint residents filed a class-action federal lawsuit against Snyder, the state, the city and 13 other public officials in November for the damages [their families] have suffered as a result of the lead-tainted water,” The Washington Post reported. According to the complaint, “For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [residents] to extreme toxicity … the deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant,” and officials’ conduct was “so egregious and so outrageous that it shocks the conscience.”
Snyder officially apologized, “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened.” He’s certainly nowhere near as sorry as the parents, nor as sorry as the children, when they realize what was done to them.
The thousands of Flint residents who have taken to social media calling for Snyder’s arrest and the Michigan activists who are planning a tribunal on Flint water poisoning are seeking to hold local leaders responsible for their misdeeds, but no measure of accountability could match the gravity of the damages done.
There are over 8,000 children in Flint under the age of 6, the time period during which children would be most vulnerable to brain damage from lead.Based on the previously mentioned latest research, every child exposed to Flint water – from a tap, from a shower or bath, from food cooked in it or from formula mixed with it – has been irreversibly harmed.