Water, Water, Clean Water (not) Everywhere

2014-02-13 20.30.43
Cook Strait ferry crossing, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

The public health (and political) crisis in Flint, Michigan over their contaminated drinking water should be sending out much louder alarm signals throughout our country. Snowmagedden 2016–from a different form of water–is drowning out the dirty water, dirty politics, and dirty failures of our public health system. Note my use of ‘our’ and not ‘their,’ which would make it oh so more comforting and at arm’s length for those of us who are not living in Flint. Contaminated water supplies can happen in our own hometowns, especially with the widespread crumbling infrastructures and a diminishing focus on public health surveillance. Access to safe, clean water is a basic human need; it should be an equal opportunity necessity. But clearly it is not.

For anyone who has missed this part of our national news, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) three days ago issued an emergency order over unsafe public water in Flint, Michigan, and assumed federal oversight of water testing and water treatment in the city of 100, 000–a city where 57% of the population is African-American and 42% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. This week President Obama declared a state of emergency over the Flint water crisis and has assigned an expert from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist in assessing the extent of lead ‘poisoning’ in children and then recommend interventions. As we know all too well, what with the effects of lead additives to household paint and gasoline, as well as other environmental sources, children’s exposure to lead has devastating effects on multiple organ systems, and especially on the developing nervous system. Lead exposure in infants (including en utero) and children is linked with cognitive deficits (lower IQ), learning and behavioral issues.

In 2014, city and state officials switched from using the nearby Detroit water supplies (which came from the much cleaner Lake Huron) to using the highly contaminated Flint River for Flint’s water, in order to save money. They also failed to treat the water appropriately to minimize lead leaching into the water supply from old pipes. And they failed to appropriately test the household water supplies, ignored residents’ complaints about green and brown and foul-smelling water. And the city and state officials, including public health officials, publicly denied there was a problem, even after Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, presented them with evidence of alarmingly elevated blood lead levels in children she was seeing. As reported today in the excellent NYT article, “When the Water Turned Brown,” by Abby Goodnough, Monica Davey, and Mitch Smith:

“Yet interviews, documents and emails show that as every major decision was made over more than a year, officials at all levels of government acted in ways that contributed to the public health emergency and allowed it to persist for months. The government continued on its harmful course even after lead levels were found to be rising…”

People have rightfully pointed out that this is clearly a case of a willful neglect of environmental justice. If Flint, Michigan was more affluent and ‘more white’ it is highly unlikely that this problem would have started in the first place, or at least it would have been more quickly and more efficiently remedied. As the EPA defines ‘environmental justice’ on its website: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

In his characteristic no-holds-barred truth-telling way, filmmaker and Flint native Michael Moore is calling for the arrest of Republican Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, claiming he helped create the water public health crisis in Flint. (See this MSNBC interview of Michael Moore by Chris Hayes, January 19, 2016.)

As a public health nurse, this complex and entirely preventable problem in Flint, makes me angry and sad. Not only because of the environmental injustice of it all. Not only for the longterm negative health consequences for the thousands of children of Flint exposed to lead through their town’s drinking water. Not only for the devastating effects on the parents of these children. But also because of how much it undermines any and all heard-earned trust people have in our public health system. That negatively affects the health and safety of all of us.

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