Flint lead poisoning is tip of the iceberg

This April 25 will mark two years since the infamous event that exposed the city of Flint to lead-contaminated water. On that day, Flint disconnected from Detroit Water and Sewerage and began getting untreated drinking water from the polluted and corrosive Flint River. For 18 months, city residents’ cries for help were ignored and belittled as they suffered from a myriad of health consequences and saw their children’s progress in school decline dramatically. When Flint switched back to Detroit water in October 2015, the damage was done.

Flint, a majority Black city with the highest poverty rate in Michigan, is a case study in environmental racism. None other than the New York Times editorial board reached that conclusion in a March 25 opinion piece titled “The Racism at the Heart of Flint’s Crisis.” The editors cited the March 23 report by the Flint Water Task Force, appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to study the crisis and its causes. While timidly avoiding the word “racism,” the task force concluded: “Flint residents, who are majority Black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.”

The same racism and anti-poor discrimination that created the Flint water crisis continues to make residents’ lives a living hell. State and federal aid, trickling in at a snail’s pace, falls well below what is needed immediately to repair the water infrastructure and provide the medical, nutritional and social support that can give Flint’s children a shot at overcoming the effects of lead poisoning.

The recommendation for children under six and pregnant women to drink only bottled water remains in effect. All others are being told to drink only filtered water. The latest report from whistleblowing scientist Marc Edwards shows overall improvement in the water’s lead levels but indicates excessive levels remain in almost 8 percent of Flint homes. In other words, at least 8,000 residents are still at risk.

New information shows that the water is still not safe for washing. Residents are still contracting skin rashes. Scott Smith, the chief technology officer of Water ­Defense — founded by actor Mark ­Ruffalo — stated April 9 that, until the water is fully tested for toxins that can be inhaled in an aerosolized mist or absorbed through skin contact, it cannot be confirmed safe for bathing or showering.

Taxpayers foot bill for governor’s defense

The culpability of Gov. Rick Snyder is beyond dispute. Snyder appointed and oversaw the emergency manager dictators who controlled Flint when the decision was made and carried out to hook into the Flint River. Snyder also appointed the Department of Environmental Quality officials who violated the federal Lead and Copper Rule by stating repeatedly that anti-corrosive chemicals were not needed, claiming for 18 months that the untreated water was safe. The governor’s own hand-picked task force placed primary responsibility on the DEQ itself.

Snyder recently raised the ire of Michigan residents even more by expropriating millions of tax dollars for his legal defense from lawsuits filed against him by hundreds and potentially thousands of Flint residents. Now, his lawyers are claiming that a lawsuit filed by activist Melissa Mays and nine other residents is untimely. Why? Because the decision to connect to the Flint River was made in April 2014 and, therefore, the lawsuit should have been filed within six months of that decision!

“There are questions of fraudulent concealment (by the governor) and I don’t think you can claim on the one hand people have not timely filed when you concealed the information that would later lead them to the danger,” Mays’ attorney rightly countered. (Detroit News, April 8)

Lead poisoning throughout the U.S.

Flint has put the effects of lead poisoning in the public mindset. Now, there are regular reports exposing how widespread the problem is. In many communities, children test positive for elevated blood lead at higher levels than Flint. In three cities — Atlanta, Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa. — the combined total of lead-affected children is 500,000. In Allentown, 23.5 percent of the children are affected. The rate in Cleveland, also a majority African-American city, is over 14 percent — twice that of Flint — because of the high number of older homes with lead-based paint. People on Native reservations also have a high rate of lead exposure.

The consequences are devastating. A 2015 study of elementary school students in Chicago tied 15 percent of all failing grades to lead poisoning.

Lead’s dangers have been known to physicians since the time of the Roman Empire. That this toxin still poses a threat to human well-being is an indictment of a system that devalues children of color and poor children, offering only a future of mass incarceration, unemployment, military servitude or low-wage jobs.

The pollution of the Flint River originated with corporations, especially the auto manufacturers, that made billions off the workers’ productivity, only to abandon them once the factories became old. These polluters, along with the state, must be forced to pay for the human damage they have inflicted.