A City in Turmoil, A Nation in Disbelief: The Flint Water Crisis
“My people perish from a lack of knowledge” –Hosea 4:6
Flint, Michigan is a place where many individuals once achieved their American dreams. General Motors was everywhere, and 70,000 men and women went to work at its plant and offices every day. Folks could live in big houses, enjoy leisure at golf courses, and drive big cars. In fact, during the mid-1960s (1964-65), Flint had the highest per-capita income in America.
But today, Flint is a mere shell of its former glory. What remains are abandoned houses, lots infested with weeds, and warehouses lying vacant. It’s a city with high unemployment rates, and where greater than 50% of the children live in poverty. Perhaps not surprisingly, in less than 50 years, the population of Flint has dropped from 200,00 to less than 100,000.
Amid these devastating statistics, there has emerged another crisis in Flint: residents being poisoned by the one commodity that is so precious to life – water. As has been well-documented over the past months, a major challenge now facing the Flint community is to identify which individuals – many of whom are children, pregnant women, and the elderly – are at the highest risk of lead contamination-related health problems, and determine how to identify and treat the outcomes of lead exposure. This is critical, because even after lead exposure ceases, the effects can last for years – or even become permanent.
Cities and states across the U.S. have had a long experience with lead contamination. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported increased lead levels in the drinking water in other Michigan cities. And more recently, similar concerns of potential lead toxicity have surfaced in North Carolina and Maine. In all of these cases, the problems of lead contamination could have been foreseen, but water treatment decisions were being made based on cost and feasibility, and environmental regulations were being ignored. This makes the problems of water safety in Flint even more infuriating, says Rebecca Meuninck of the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health. She has called it, “A real public health crisis with a real-life impact.”
And the “real-life impact” is significant. Clinical researchers have acknowledged the devastating long-term effects of lead exposure in childhood. Lead exposure causes deficits in intellectual functioning, academic performance, critical thinking skills, and motor-skills, along with decreased brain volume in adulthood. Researchers also have begun to explore links between childhood lead exposure and various risky behaviors in adulthood, including criminal activity, substance use, and even HIV-AIDS. Because there are no known ways to reverse the harmful effects of lead toxicity, many pediatricians, such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center in Flint, emphasize prevention strategies and minimizing or eliminating environmental exposure.
We also cannot ignore the presence of racial and socioeconomic disparities in this public health crisis. According to the CDC and other health organizations, minority children and children in low-income families experience higher average blood lead levels. This is likely due to differences in living conditions, housing, and nutrition. Because calcium decreases lead absorption in the body, malnourished children face a greater burden of disease.
Presently, I am working with a group of researchers from the University of Michigan Flint, and a number of clergy, as we develop community based participatory research initiatives targeting parents, school officials, and residents of Flint in an effort to identify any abnormal behaviors, or signs of lead toxicity/contamination within young children. I am also working with Dr. Vicki Johnson-Lawrence, a Social Epidemiologist at UM-Flint, to develop a research model identifying life course issues of comorbidity (diabetes, stress, cancer, cardiovascular disease) as they relate to long-term health disparities. The Department of Public Health & Health Sciences at UM-Flint also has held seminars, and produced infomercials, to enhance public awareness of the specific effects of lead toxicity.
So the problem has been identified. But what’s next? To start, we need communities, public health officials, medical organizations, and the CDC to galvanize efforts to educate and develop behavioral interventions. Our elected officials also have to provide the necessary resources to help devise a solution that will provide hope and a brighter future. And residents need assurances that their water will be safe to drink, their streets will be safe to walk again, and their children will be safe and healthy. So let’s come together for the many thousands here in Flint, and other cities as well, and give the children a brighter hope for tomorrow.
Terry L. Thompson, DHA, is an Assistant Professor, Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Michigan-Flint. His research interests lie in the area of men’s health, specifically men suffering from Type 2 Diabetes.