BY TESS REMICK ’21
On Feb. 25, 2015, Flint, Michigan resident Lee Anne Walters’ home’s water was tested for lead. The water’s lead content was almost seven times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s limit for lead in drinking water according to Michigan Radio. Walters realized something was wrong with her water in 2014 when her young children were getting rashes from swimming in their swimming pool and taking baths in their home. When one of her twin sons, Gavin, was eventually diagnosed with lead poisoning, Walters decided to pursue contact with the EPA, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the media.
The story of Flint and its “water crisis” led then-President Obama and the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, to declare a state of emergency in Flint. In January of 2016, President Obama signed an emergency declaration ordering federal assistance to provide the city with aid and assistance. Residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing by the mayor, Karen Weaver. Donations and support flooded in but the crisis persisted. Now, three years since Lee Anne Walters first had her home’s water tested, little has changed in Flint.
The problem began when the city’s drinking water source was changed from the Detroit River to the untreated Flint River in 2014 in order to cut millions of dollars from Flint’s expenditures, CNN reports. The lead pipes being used to transport water from the Flint River to the homes of residents are corroding rapidly, causing the level of lead in the water to differ from home to home, according to The New York Times. Since the switch, over 100,000 residents have been potentially exposed to differing levels of lead in the drinking water.
The crisis continues to wreak havoc on the residents of Flint, as there have been 10 deaths linked to Legionnaire’s disease, a severe form of pneumonia that’s linked to unsanitary water, according to Headlines & Global News, and it is believed that 8,000 children under the age of six could have been exposed to lead poisoning through the water system.
For adults, the effects of lead poisoning include skin lesions, hair loss, vision loss, memory loss, depression and anxiety. In addition, those with lead poisoning will continue to live with the long-term effects such as abdominal pain, irritability, fatigue, high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction. Lead poisoning, even in the smallest quantities, can be catastrophic to the growth of children as they are likely to develop learning disabilities and other health issues.
Residents began complaining in May of 2014 about the quality of water coming out of their faucets. Tests of the water came back positive for various bacteria such as E. coli and disinfectant byproducts, according to NPR.
“Cost-cutting measures caused this devastating error which is unacceptable, considering that drinking water is a basic right that every human should have access to,” said Abby Bridgers ’21, a prospective politics major who has kept up with the issue since images of the tainted water went viral in 2016. As of 2017, the water samples taken from Flint River have yielded lower levels of lead; however, residents are still instructed by the mayor to continue to use bottled or filtered water until all the lead pipes have been replaced, which is expected to be completed no sooner than 2020, according to The New York Post.
CNN demographers found that the majority of Flint residents are African Americans and 40 percent of them live below the poverty line. Many believe that the crisis was the result of environmental racism, which is the act of a government or institution purposely making environmental budget cuts and/or putting hazardous and polluting material where people of color settle. Nicole Michaud Wild, professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College, said, “Usually, if a place is having budgetary problems, it’s because people are leaving — which is usually a ‘white-flight’ issue. This is when residents leave depressed areas, and those who are leaving tend to be middle-class white people. The people left behind are usually poorer people and people of color.”
The federal government stated that it will spend $97 million over the next couple of years in Flint to replace the lead pipes in at least 18,000 homes, according to NPR. Millions of dollars have been donated, and volunteers are working in Flint to restore clean, drinkable water, but many believe that the damage has already been done. “[Lawmakers] need to think of the crisis as a natural disaster and deal with it in the same way that they would deal with a hurricane,” said Wild. “We are more likely to react if something physical has happened such as homes being destroyed. Flint is going through the same thing — except it’s hidden. It needs to be treated like an emergency because, for them, it is an emergency, and they have no way to get out of it.”