Lead in Flint: This is America

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Dwight "DJ" Earnest, 23, holds his 1-year-old daughter Zariah Cade in his home on the west side of Flint, Mich., on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.

Our outrage at the poisoning of the people of Flint, Mich. - and the way the government failed, once again, its poorest and most disenfranchised citizens - is hard to contain. As a nation, to deal with such crises effectively, we need to overcome racism and lax enforcement of environmental regulations, and make polluters accountable for their actions. The Flint River was known to contain corrosive water, due in part to the long history of industrial pollutants once dumped into it. We believe that the choice to draw drinking water from the Flint River, which ended up releasing lead from old pipes and into young developing brains, was criminal. The children of Flint and their families are now paying the price. We are witnesses. What will we as a society do to support the long-term physical and behavioral harm that the people of Flint have been forced to bear? Will the politicians and polluters who put Flint at risk be held accountable?

In the midst of the current crisis we have much to learn from historians, who have long warned about the occupational and environmental hazards of lead. We had the opportunity last week to sit down with Columbia University historian Dr. David Rosner and discuss the lead crisis in Flint. Rosner, a member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine, has written extensively on the history of lead as an environmental and occupational health risk, including the pioneering research in Philadelphia, where what was known as “The Tooth Fairy Project” began the revolution in thinking about how lead affects children’s neurological development. In his own work Rosner has drawn attention to issues ranging from lead poisoning to the dangers of vinyl chloride. Called  “the people’s historian” by one judge, Rosner says the Flint crisis was “predictable” -  and offers some remedies.

Michael Yudell, for The Public’s Health: When you first learned about the lead-tainted water and the poisoning of citizens in Flint, what was your reaction?

David Rosner: My initial reaction was that this was completely predictable. How could the state allow people to drink water out of what is basically an open industrial sewer? How could a river that was the dumping ground of General Motors and others for a century, how could you ever think about allowing anyone to drink that? Why isn’t anyone talking about that industrial history and the role it is playing in this crisis? I also wondered whether the pipes were the only source of contamination. After all, this industrial city was built during a time when lead paint was used and most of these kids must have been exposed to paint dust as well.

Al Jazeera reported on the Flint water crisis over a year ago, and others in the media have been reporting on citizens’ outrage about their water. This seems to be a classic instance of environmental racism, as some have charged. In this instance, citizens spoke up, the media paid some attention, and the government did nothing. Is the solution to preventing future Flints educating government officials or does something more fundamental need to change? 

These were desperately poor people. This was a poor community gutted by decades of industrial exploitation. Making matters worse, the public health department seems to have defended the state, rather than the people.

Can you explain how the history of Flint is impacting the current situation?

Flint was the home of the modern industrial manufacturing process. Flint was built and quickly became an industrial dump. Wages were poor and working conditions were just horrible. The history of this town is built around industrial processes. The river was lined by industrial plants that were polluting along a miles-long stretch of the river. Flint would be doomed to be an industrial waste dump. And it can be argued, as Michael Moore has, that General Motors gutted the city and then abandoned it. This history lay the groundwork for today. A polluted river harming the pipes and now the public.

Do you regard the horrific lead exposure in Flint as an instance of governmental abuse of children? If so, who do you see as accountable? 

A culture that has seen people as disposable. A culture and a government and a set of industries that have put finances and profits ahead of people, and put the corporate well being and interests ahead of the people’s interest. These industries should be held accountable. They long abandoned these communities and feel like they have no responsibilities. They leave gutted neighborhoods in their wake and leave it up to government to clean up their mess. Of course, overwhelmed government officials can avoid taking action largely because the victims are poor, politically and socially isolated Latinos and African Americans.

What about the victims? Can they ever be made whole? What claims do the citizens of Flint have on the officials in Michigan who betrayed their trust and poisoned them?

For the victims, unfortunately, lead poisoning is insidious and will show up in forms of lowered IQs, failure in school, failure to thrive later in life. It will come up in a thousand ways. For adults who are lead-poisoned, research indicates that low-level lead exposure may impact organ function. High-level exposure can lead to convulsions and other neurological problems. But it is certainly not as dramatic and damaging for adults as it is for kids.

What can be done for future generations?

Get the lead out now! We need to take this seriously as a culture. Get the lead out of the water, pipes and walls. Pure water is a basic societal responsibility. Decent housing too. But for many children in Flint, the damage has been done. Hopefully there will be enough remedial support to allow those poisoned to lead decent lives.

As a scholar who has engaged in legal battles, can you tell us what kinds of actions can be taken by legislatures, courts, and regulator agencies to prevent toxic exposures in the future?

Provide better water, housing, and infrastructure. Make industries realize we are not going to forget what they are going to do. Hold industry accountable for any polluting they do. Otherwise, without pressure, you can be sure this will happen again. It may not be lead, but some other pollution. 


For more on the history of lead and lead poisoning in America, take a look at Rosner's recent book, "Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children." For a recent extended interview with David Rosner from NPR's Marketplace, please click here.

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