With President Obama clearing the way for federal aid in Flint, Michigan, last month, the water crisis is receiving immediate attention. The city is no longer using water from the Flint River, and the National Guard is helping to distribute clean water to residents. This is a short-term fix, and it's something the city badly needed. Unfortunately, this federal effort only focuses on what's happening today in Flint, and not on the future of its citizens.
But before we delve into solutions, here's a little background on the crisis:
In 2011, the state of Michigan took over the city of Flint's struggling finances, and Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency financial manager.1 Since then the state has been trying to cut costs wherever possible.1 In that same year, Flint officials learned from a study that they would have to treat water from the Flint River with an anti-corrosion agent, which would cost about $100 a day, in order to make it safe to drink.1 In April of 2014, the state switched Flint's water supply to the Flint River to cut costs (and did not treat the water).1 Soon thereafter, in May of 2014, residents started noticing differences in their tap water and began to complain. Residents reported that it was brown and foul-smelling.1
City and state officials repeatedly told residents that the water was safe.2 However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) discussed high lead levels in Flint water in February of 2015.1
Throughout 2015, various studies pointed to the danger of Flint River water. One study conducted by Virginia Tech researchers in August of 2015 tested water in Flint homes and found elevated lead levels.1 After the results were published, Michigan's DEQ disputed the researchers' conclusions about corrosion and lead leeching.
Another study conducted by a Hurley Medical Center doctor tested more than 1,700 Flint children for lead poisoning and found that the percentage of infants and children with above average lead levels had nearly doubled since the switch to the Flint River. "When (my research team and I) saw that it was getting into children and when we knew the consequences, that's when I think we began not to sleep," said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who led the study. The study was delivered to then-Mayor Dayne Walling in September, and recommended that the city end its use of Flint River water immediately.3
The state publicly denounced Dr. Hanna-Attisha's study in September of 2015, saying that she was causing unnecessary panic. A week later, officials reversed their statement and agreed she was right.1
In October of 2015, Governor Rick Snyder announced a plan to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water supply.1 But it was too late — residents had been drinking water with unsafe levels of lead for over a year and the pipes were damaged. Virginia Tech researchers continued to find lead in Flint tap water.1
In December of 2015, then-director of the DEQ Dan Wyant resigned.1 Last month, Governor Rick Snyder asked for the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Michigan National Guard, and finally for federal aid, which President Obama signed off on.4 And Governor Snyder, whose administration was in control of Flint when the switch was made, said "I'm sorry, and I will fix it."1
With the help of federal aid and donations, residents of Flint may no longer be drinking water with high lead levels, but that doesn't mean the problem should fade from the public mind. There is no "fixing" lead poisoning.3 The families whose water was poisoned for over a year are going to deal with the consequences of this crisis for a long time to come.
The future is especially troubling for families with children, since lead is particularly harmful to kids.6 Their growing, developing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are also more sensitive to the harmful effects of lead.6 Children affected by lead poisoning often experience behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia.6
Lead is also harmful to adults, though often in different ways. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from cardiovascular problems like increased blood pressure and hypertension, kidney failure, and reproductive problems.6
Five years from now, when Flint is (hopefully) once again drinking clean tap water, will affected families have somewhere to turn? It's easy to forget that when this story is no longer the front-page headline, Flint residents will still be grappling with it. There is no easy fix. With one decision, Michigan officials changed the lives of thousands, and that's why the state needs to provide long-term care.
Sign our petition asking Governor Rick Snyder to ensure that every person affected by the Flint water crisis will be provided with appropriate resources and services to deal with the long-term effects of lead poisoning here.
1CNN, "Flint water crisis timeline: How years of problems led to lead poisoning," 1/20/2016.
2New York Times, "As Water Problems Grew, Officials Belittled Complaints From Flint," 1/20/2016.
3MLive, "Elevated lead found in more Flint kids after water switch, study finds," 9/25/2016.
4Washington Post, "President Obama clears way for federal aid in Flint, Mich., water crisis," 1/16/2016.
5New York Times, "The Facts About Lead Exposure and Its Irreversible Damage," 1/29/2016.
6Environmental Protection Agency, "Learn About Lead," 10/15/2015.