What does lead do to the human body? Infants and small children can suffer brain and nervous system damage, weakened immune systems and general physical collapse that can lead to death. Pregnant women have a higher risk of stillbirth or miscarriage. A raft of studies has pretty much concluded that lead can cause cancer. It causes cardiovascular diseases and kidney damage which, like cancer, can also kill. The people of Flint, Michigan, are now subject to all of these impacts and more, due to the lead in their water.
The people of Flint and other surrounding towns have been drinking, cooking with and bathing in lead-poisoned water for two years. More than 8,000 children have been exposed along with tens of thousands of other people. This was not an accident. This was a crime committed against a predominantly Black, predominately poor population that Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder couldn't give less of a damn about.
The story in short: In order to "save money," Governor Snyder's hand-picked emergency manager (read: hatchetman) decided to change Flint's water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. That "save money" claim, however, has been brought into serious question by reports that Flint would have actually saved money if they stayed on the Huron line. There have been allegations that Governor Snyder made the switch in order to undermine the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department so he could ultimately privatize it. Others suggest his motivation was founded in a desire to open up new areas for fracking. The governor has made no comment on these allegations. One thing seems clear: This decision appears to have little to do with "saving money."
If you tried to jump into the Flint River, you'd bounce off the surface. General Motors used the river as its personal dumping ground for decades; it is highly polluted, and more importantly is highly acidic. When Flint River water began flowing through Michigan's ancient water supply system, it stripped the lead right off the pipes and delivered it to thousands of homes.
To be more precise:
In the spring of 2015, city officials tested water in the home of LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four and a Navy wife. They got a reading of 397 ppb, an alarmingly high number.
But it was even worse than that. Virginia Tech's team went to Walters' house to verify those numbers later in the year. They were concerned that the city tested water in a way that was almost guaranteed to minimize lead readings: They flushed the water for several minutes before taking a sample, which often washes away a percentage of lead contaminants. They also made residents collect water at a very low flow rate, which they knew also tended to be associated with lower readings.
The highest reading registered at 13,000 ppb. Five parts per billion of lead are a concern. 5,000 parts per billion is considered "toxic waste." From April 2014 until October 2015 (and later, and still) the people of Flint were drinking water with up to 13,000 parts per billion of lead in it.
Governor Snyder finally got around to declaring a state of emergency just the other day. Tamara Rubin - filmmaker, executive director of Lead Safe America and the mother of lead-poisoned children - told Truthout: "The biggest problem with this state of emergency is that the people of Flint are getting biased, incomplete and incorrect information at every turn - information influenced by either politics or financial interests or both. No one is providing them with current, scientifically accurate and complete information about their children's future - and how in so many cases, their lives will have now been profoundly changed forever."
Two years ago, the people of Flint turned on their faucets and a brown horror came flowing out. Many people complained to the state's government but were roundly ignored and dismissed. Meanwhile, lead, along with a gruesome rainbow of other contaminants, poured into people's houses day after day, and Snyder's crew ignored the whole thing. It went on for a long string of months before anyone decided to do anything about it, and the problem remains ongoing.
Here's the kicker: Flint residents are still getting billed for water the Virginia Tech study described as toxic waste. Some are getting dunning letters for refusing to pay for water that could kill them or their children. In France long ago, it was "Let them eat cake." Today, in Flint, it's "Let them drink bottled water" ... except a whole lot of people in Flint can't afford bottled water, and they sure as hell can't bathe in it.
The story of Flint is the story of the United States, and it isn't pretty. Flint once boasted 80,000 General Motors employees, but thanks to outsourcing now only has a tenth of that. Unemployment is rampant. The river is disgusting after years of industrial pollution. Our national indifference toward our crumbling, sometimes century-old infrastructure left those pipes in the ground to deliver that lead to children thanks to the austerity policies of a right-wing governor and his national party.
Hovering over it all are the matters of race and poverty. This debacle began two years ago and should have been immediately addressed, but it wasn't, because the people affected have no voice in Gov. Rick Snyder's government. "Everybody knows," wrote Flint native Michael Moore, "that this would not have happened in predominantly white Michigan cities like West Bloomfield, or Grosse Pointe, or Ann Arbor. Everybody knows that if there had been two years of taxpayer complaints, and then a year of warnings from scientists and doctors, this would have been fixed in those towns."
Moore described what is happening in Flint as a "racial crime," and he's exactly right. The story of Flint is the story of the United States, of outsourcing, privatizing, rampant pollution, a stark lack of corporate accountability, poverty, joblessness, collapsing infrastructure, right-wing austerity politics and above all a crushing and pervasive racism that is literally and figuratively poisoning children.
"You can't talk of the dangers of snake poisoning," said former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, "and not mention snakes." These snakes poison with lead. The truth of what has happened and continues to happen to the town of Flint, Michigan, is a national disgrace, and the people enduring it will have to live with the consequences for the term of their lives.