“If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water, we would have done something about it.”
– Hillary Clinton
“There are no excuses. The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water. He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Governor Snyder should resign.”
– Bernie Sanders
You might have heard that there is lead in Flint’s water. You’re not going to believe how much. And you’re not going to believe how bad lead exposure is for people. But you’ll probably believe it happened because government-hating Republicans set aside democracy so Flint’s residents couldn’t stop them from running government “like a business” and cutting government spending.
Trade Policies Sent The Jobs Away
Michigan is one state that has been hard hit by our country’s trade policies. Once considered the center of the automobile industry, factories and jobs were sent out of the country to places where people are exploited and barely paid, and the environment is not protected. (Yes, we let them do that.)
The result has been absolutely devastating (see “ruin porn“) to Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint as jobs disappeared and people who could afford to move to try to find jobs did just that. The rest of the city’s residents are left in poverty amidst miles of boarded-up, abandoned and falling-down buildings and homes, empty storefronts, and absolutely overwhelmed and underfunded public services. Help from the state and federal governments is not forthcoming.
Run Government Like A Business
Rick Snyder is a businessman (CEO, venture capitalist) who in 2010 campaigned for governor on running government like a business, promising to be the CEO governor who would create jobs. Michigan was starved for jobs, first from Wall-Street-sponsored deindustrialization, then from the Wall-Street-caused crash and recession/depression. So any promise of jobs went a long way. Maybe it was time to try turning government over to someone wealthy from outside government who said he knew better than government how to run government. Daily Beast noted at the time, “there is a more than a hint of plutocrats-know-best in Rick Snyder’s campaign pitch.”
But government in a democracy is nothing like a business. It is supposed to organize itself to deliver services and make people’s lives better, not profit off the people. Managing government and business requires entirely different skill sets and mindsets. (Also, that thing about businesses “creating jobs?” That’s not what businesses strive to do; they strive to cut costs and eliminate jobs. According to the Daily Beast, “While Snyder was on the board of Gateway [a U.S.-based computer company that had its heyday in the 1990s but ceased independent operations in 2007], the company’s workforce contracted from 21,000 American workers in 2000 to 7,400 workers in 2003.”)
Emergency Manager Law, Setting Aside Democracy
In 2011, Republicans passed a controversial law allowing the governor to run government like a business and appoint a CEO-style “emergency manager” when a city is considered to be financially irresponsible (i.e., too black). Under the law, it does not matter that the people of the city already elected a mayor, council and other leaders. The governor sets the election aside, brings in an emergency manager to take control of the local government, reduce its size and cost, and privatize public property, no matter the effect on the people there.
Like a turnaround CEO brought in from another company, the emergency manager has few connections to the community. Cut services, cut costs, strip, streamline, just like a business would do. (Such cities are typically surrounded by well-off “white-flight” suburban areas that are not required to financially or otherwise participate in solving the problems.)
The affected communities didn’t like that, and, unlike a business, could still do something about it. Michigan’s emergency manager law was repealed by referendum in 2012. So Republicans re-passed it in a lame duck legislative session. But this time they included a small appropriation, which under Michigan law meant it cannot be subject to a voter referendum. That’s that; the board has spoken, everybody get in line, all row in the same direction, play on the same team, run the ball down the field, just like in a business, or get out. Except unlike in a business there is no “get out” – you still live there.
Public Health Emergency
Flint’s public health emergency started when the city’s emergency manager “saved money” ($8.5 million over 5 years) by switching the city’s water source from Detroit via a pipeline to drawing water from the polluted Flint River. People involved in water systems will tell you that river water is acidic, which leaches lead and other metals from pipes, but they were not asked. The emergency managers could have added corrosion control chemicals to the water, but that would be more “government spending,” and they didn’t.
This happened in April 2014. Immediately people started complaining about the taste and smell of the now-brown water that was coming into their homes. For 18 months people complained. They started getting rashes. People’s hair was falling out. The government, run like a business, did what businesses do: they entered “damage-control mode,” denied there was a problem, blamed the messengers and tried to spin things their way. City and state officials said the water was OK. But there were growing concerns that there was a problem.
A Flint pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Children’s Hospital, compared blood test results for 1,746 children in Flint before and after April 2014 and discovered an increase in lead levels. “But when we announced the results, the state called me ‘an unfortunate researcher causing near hysteria,’ an ‘irresponsible researcher.’”
Then, in September, 2015, a study from Virginia Tech‘s Marc Edwards was released showing dangerous levels of lead in the water. Then in October city officials finally said, yes, something is wrong with the water and people should not drink it.
What was happening? Lead and other metals were “leaching” into the water as corrosion affected old pipes. From April 2014 until October 2015 the people of Flint were forced to drink contaminated water, filled with toxic amounts of lead and other metals.
How Much Lead Are We Talking About?
How much lead is in Flint’s water? Brace yourself.
The Washington Post provided a way to understand just how much lead, in “This is how toxic Flint’s water really is“:
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.
So the Virginia Tech researchers took 30 different readings at various flow levels. What they found shocked them: The lowest reading they obtained was around 200 ppb, already ridiculously high. But more than half of the readings came in at more than 1,000 ppb. Some came in above 5,000 — the level at which EPA considers the water to be “toxic waste.”
The highest reading registered at 13,000 ppb.
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.
What Lead Does To Health, Especially Children
Lead has terrible and irreversible effects on people’s health, especially children. Even low levels – 5 parts per billion – of exposure have been shown to have many subtle health effects.
According to the CDC, short-term exposure can cause people to feel:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Memory loss
- Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet
But if a pregnant woman is exposed, it can damage a developing baby’s nervous system. “Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility (in both men and women).”
In children lead exposure has “lasting neurological and behavioral damage.” It leads to intellectual disabilities, serious difficulty controlling impulses, retaining information and learning in school. It is difficult or impossible for them to later have thought-intensive jobs.
Lead can also keep the body from getting nutrients required for cell development and the growth of strong teeth and bones. (One way it does this is to “inhibit or mimic the actions of calcium.”)
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) How Lead Poisons the Human Body, “The lead builds up in soft tissue — kidneys, bone marrow, liver, and brain — as well as bones and teeth…Some scientists believe that low-level chronic lead exposure in childhood can alter secretion of the human growth hormone, stunting growth and promoting obesity.”
The NRDC document has a warning for the future: “Unfortunately, most children do not present overt symptoms of poisoning. Because their symptoms (ranging from irritability to stomach upset) may not be immediately recognizable as lead-related the majority of cases go undetected.”
Between April 2014 and October 2015, when studies confirmed that the water was poisoning people in Flint, people fought to get the city and state to do something. The water smelled, was brown, tasted bad and people were experiencing symptoms from it. And doctors were warning that people were showing signs of lead poisoning but could not yet confirm from where it was coming. All along the state kept saying this was not the result of the emergency manager’s decision to switch Flint’s water source to cut government spending, business-style.
It’s not as if people around the country were not trying to sound the alarm.
In May 2014, just a month after the water switch, the city learned that trihalomethanes ( TTHMs) were above levels allowed in the Clean Water Act, but did not inform residents until January 2015, and did not switch back to safe water.
In October 2014, GM noticed that the water was corroding engines and started trucking water in from elsewhere.
In March 2015, The New York Times reported:
After Flint changed the source of its drinking water last spring, Ms. Mays said, she noticed a change in the water’s color and odor. Then she started having rashes, and clumps of her hair fell out. When the city issued a boil order, she stopped using the water for drinking and cooking. Now her family spends roughly $400 a month on bottled water.
… Flint officials insist that the city’s water is safe. They say that the issues of odor and color are separate from the question of whether the water meets federal standards, and that no link to health problems has been proved.
…“I don’t feel hopeful,” Mr. Palladeno said. “At one time, I loved this town. I still love it. There’s good people here. But the governing is killing us. I think we need a federal intervention.”
The Atlantic wrote in July 2015:
Melissa Mays looks around the emergency room at a frail, elderly man in a wheelchair and a woman with a hacking cough and can’t quite believe she’s here. Until a few months ago, she was healthy—an active mother of three boys who found time to go to the gym while holding down a job as a media consultant and doing publicity for bands.
But lately, she’s been feeling sluggish. She’s developed a rash on her leg, and clumps of her hair are falling out. She ended up in the emergency room last week after feeling “like [her] brain exploded,” hearing pops, and experiencing severe pain in one side of her head.
Mays blames her sudden spate of health problems on the water in her hometown of Flint. She says it has a blue tint when it comes out of her faucet, and lab results indicate it has high amounts of copper and lead. Her family hasn’t been drinking the water for some months, but they have been bathing in it, since they have no alternative.
The State of Michigan, under the direction of Governor Rick Snyder, tried to keep the story under wraps, and deny there was a problem, apparently even after they knew there was a serious problem. As late as September the state was still denying there was a problem with the water from the Flint river, and taking issue with the studies saying otherwise. Michigan Live wrote, “State says data shows no link to Flint River, elevated lead in blood“:
Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said blood lead levels in Flint have remained fairly steady for children under 16 years old since the city switched from Lake Huron water to the river.
However, while denying there was a problem, the governor’s office was secretly ordering filters be supplied to Flint.
Professor Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech University says the reason the state was still denying the link could be that they altered data from samples. CNN reports in “Did Michigan officials hide the truth about lead in Flint?”
Documents and emails show discrepancies between two reports detailing the toxicity of lead samples collected by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the city of Flint between January and June 2015, Professor Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech University said.
… According to Edwards, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the city of Flint collected 71 lead level samples from homes when they were required to collect 100. The final report from the Department of Environmental Quality however, only accounted for 69 of those 71 samples.
Edwards said those two discarded samples were “high-lead” and would have lifted the “action level” above 15 parts per billion.
But wait, there’s more,
Edwards said the samples should have been taken from homes with lead pipes. The reports say they were, but Michael Glasgow, then-assistant supervisor of the Flint water plant, said this is not true. Glasgow told CNN the records were not complete, and the sampling teams did not know which homes had lead pipes.
“In essence, the state took an ‘F-grade’ for Flint water’s report on lead and made it into an ‘A-grade,’” Edwards told CNN.
But wait, there’s more,
The memo notes that residents were instructed to “pre-flush” taps before samples were taken, a practice that has been shown “to result in the minimization of lead capture and significant underestimation of lead levels.”
Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality notified the city on June 25, 2015 that they had found high lead levels in some of the samples. It was after that notification that the samples changed, and showed no more lead.
Now Legionnaire’s Disease, Too
On top of the lead crisis, Legionnaire’s disease is breaking out in Flint, also apparently a consequence of the problems with Flint’s water. So far 87 cases of Legionnaire’s Disease, 10 of them fatal, have turned up.
Saturday President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint. This means the federal government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can start to help the people there. FEMA will provide water, filters and cartridges and other items, up to $5 million. However, he did not declare Flint and its county, Genesee, to be disaster areas, which would bring additional funds and assistance, because that status has always been used for natural disasters rather than man-made (in this case we should say Republican-made) ones.
This crisis is terrible news for Flint. It comes as Flint was entering a period of revival. The University of Michigan had opened dormitories for its Flint campus and the result was new restaurants and shops springing up. Housing prices were finally stabilizing and increasing.
What Must Be Done
Michael Moore wrote a public letter to President Obama (with a petition, click through) asking for President Obama to provide federal assistance:
- The CDC here at once to truly assess all of the disease and damage that has been forced upon the people of Flint.
- FEMA has to supply large water containers in every home in Flint — and they must be filled by water trucks until the new infrastructure is resolved.
- The EPA must take over matters from the State (can the governor be removed and replaced like he did to the mayor of Flint?). Immediately.
- You must send in the Army Corps of Engineers to build that new water infrastructure. Otherwise, you might as well just evacuate all the people from Flint and move them to a white city that has clean drinking water — and where this would never happen.
The people in Flint are going to need complete health evaluations and care for any problems that show up. But this is also a long-term public health crisis. People will need evaluation and care for years.
Flint’s children that have been affected are going to need special teaching and other assistance, as well as other help for the rest of their lives.
The reason this story has come to the attention of the nation is because Rachel Maddow has been pounding on it and making people listen. Here are links to some of the segments Maddow has shown. (If you only watch one, watch this one.
- Dec. 15, 2015 Lead-poisoned children prompt emergency declaration from mayor
- Dec. 18, 2015, Kids’ toxic test results raised alarm over water supply: Doctor
- Dec. 19, 2015, Flint toxic water tragedy points directly to Michigan Gov. Snyder
- Dec 22, 2015, Snyder admin allowed Flint to drink toxic water despite warnings
- Dec. 23, 2015, Flint community scrambles to cope with state’s water error
- Dec. 29, 2015, Michigan governor apologizes for Flint water
- Jan. 4, 2016, New calls for federal probe of Snyder admin in Flint water fiasco
- Jan. 6, 2016, Flint water concerns ‘blown off’ by state: Snyder staffer e-mail
- Jan. 7, 2016, Water donations run dry in Flint, no action from Governor Snyder
- Jan. 11, 2016, Meager progress in Flint toxic water crisis by Michigan’s Snyder
- Jan. 13, 2016, Spike in cases of Legionnaires’ eyed for tie to Flint toxic water
- Jan. 15, 2015, Clinton chastises Snyder on Flint, state calls for federal help
- Listen to “Not Safe to Drink,” a special documentary about the Flint water crisis
- Daily Kos, Anatomy of a community poisoned: The water disaster in Flint, Michigan
How To Help
- How to help Flint, Michigan
- How you can help people in Flint during the water crisis
- Ways to help Flint residents during water crisis
- Bottles for the Babies
One more thing. Like a business, Flint is telling customers they still owe for the poisoned water. They are sending shut-off notices to residents telling them they will be cut off if they do not pay up.
Government is not a business. It shouldn’t be thought of as a business and especially not run like a business. Government is supposed to represent us, We the People, and help us have better lives. It should serve us, not profit off of us and disregard our lives.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. It also appeared on January 20, 2016 on Seeing the Forest, a website featuring commentary by Dave Johnson, frequent public speaker and talk-radio guest and a leading participant in the progressive blogging community. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Johnson.