Since the story breached national news last month, Flint’s water quality scandal has attracted captivating headlines about “poisoning children”. This attention is warranted-- infecting 100,000 residents’ water with lead and doubling the rate of lead in children's blood is downright alarming. What has received less attention is the environmental degradation that low-income families are facing in this historically underserved community.
The decisions that led to poisoning the people of Flint are a poignant indication of the way our leaders too often treat those in poverty. In April 2014 the decision was made under Governor Snyder to switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River, a temporary move until a new line could be established with Lake Huron. The state went ahead with the switch in an effort to save money, even though the Flint River has a reputation of being unsafe. Almost immediately following the switch, residents complained about the water’s taste and smell, although it took over a year for the city to respond to these concerns.
The water crisis in Flint is an unfortunate but much-needed reminder of the inequitable experiences that poor, minority families often experience. Many of the families facing poverty in Flint already struggle to obtain food, housing, and transportation; and now they must add water, generally considered a basic right in this country, to that list.
Flint’s unfortunate story mirrors several other rust-belt cities and illuminates the antecedents of the current residents’ plight. Through the late 1970s, Flint was a hotbed for automotive work, with GM employing 80,000 people in 1978. Jobs began to leave Flint in the 1980s as GM closed down plants, and it was only a short time later that Flint’s population followed suit. What Flint now has to offer is a predominately African American population that struggles against intense rates of poverty, high unemployment, and even higher crime rates.
Many Flint families are already constrained by economic barriers, and they are now forced to take extra time and money to find or purchase clean water. These costs are clear and significant, but they only brush the surface of what Flint families are dealing with. For example, the stress associated with keeping children and pets safe, bathing in bottled water, and caring for personal needs without adequate supplies can amplify mental health challenges that threaten the emotional fabric of family life. These threats to family stability are amplified in a community that has low-literacy rates, non-English speaking persons, and very low-income households.
If the moral calamity of the situation is not compelling enough to warrant indignation, then the costly long term problems associated with the state’s attempt to save money should spark outrage. Some parents are developing rashes from bathing in their water, meaning that they cannot work or be successful caretakers while struggling with these medical conditions. Health care costs may rise as a result of the lead, a burden both families and the government could bear. Similarly, lead can cause significant damage to the brain, often leading to lower IQ’s and subsequently altering behavior patterns. The children of Flint who have been subjected to heightened levels of lead in their bloodstream will likely suffer from developmental delays and behavioral problems. This damage is permanent and will undoubtedly impact their future success in school and in life. (We’ll have more on this in a later post.)
As environmental disasters have shown time and time again (remember Love Canal? Remember Erin Brockovich?), poor communities are ripe to be taken advantage of when policymakers seek to minimize costs. The unfortunate irony is that the water crisis in Flint will have a host of negative consequences for society that will cost the state far more than the money they tried to save in the short term. One prominent example is the children who will now need expensive special education services in schools, which could eventually burden the criminal justice system as more students are delinquent.
Tragically, there are other underserved communities whose children suffer from lead-poisoning at higher rates than Flint’s (for example, Detroit’s soil has higher levels of lead than Flint’s water), but these communities remain largely unnoticed. At least Flint’s local population is actually receiving a spotlight on their misfortune, unlike many other disadvantaged areas.The attention towards Flint may actually be beneficial in this case because more transparency can help amplify the problem and hopefully remedy the water quality. Still, it was not until the damage was already done that notice was taken of this poor community.
Perhaps poisoned water is the natural consequence of a society that puts pennies before the safety of a marginalized community.This is certainly a pessimistic outlook, but one that creates obvious urgency for change. The news crews will surely move on, but this conversation should not. Flint can be the starting point for a modern understanding about environmental inequalities and the barriers they place on everyday families."