By Stephanye R. Clarke
In April 2014, in an effort to save money in cash-strapped Flint, Michigan, state officials (in charge of budgetary issues since 2011) switched from Detroit Water to the Flint River to save money. In October 2015, after nearly two years of exposure to contaminated water, they switched back to Detroit Water, but the damage had been done.
Pregnant women and children who drank the city’s water from April 2014 to October 2015 were exposed to lead. Flint’s water crisis has made national news and is a hot topic on many social media platforms (follow #FlintWaterCrisis). Pouring over articles and videos throughout the day took me back to my public health background—this is a complete public/population/community health nightmare.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) lead poisoning fact sheet must be of little comfort to the parents whose children were exposed—about as much comfort as hearing the most recent report that fewer than 50 people had elevated lead levels from October – December 2015. The testing reflected current levels, but did not account for previous exposure.
In a CNN article, the Flint Mayor Karen Weaver stated, “You know, I never thought this was something that we would be begging for, crying for … clean, affordable water.”
In the same article, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling stated, “You can’t put a dollar amount on the devastation to our community, our kids, and it was completely avoidable.”
I find the words from the former mayor disturbing and insincere to say the least and would wager Flint residents agree. There is enough outrage to go around—and there are demands for justice and accountability.
Ultimately, though—most heavy on many of our minds are the futures of the children who drank this water and those impacted by exposure to toxins in utero.
According to The American Fact Finder from the US Census, the following is a snapshot of the Flint, MI population:
- Population around 100 thousand
- Estimated 54.9% Black, 39.4% White
- Median Household income: $24,679
- 41.6% are below the poverty level- 35% of Whites, 45.5% of Blacks
The #FlintWaterCrisis reminds me of being present in rooms where insurance executives frame consumers’ health status and outcomes on personal responsibility. Sure, personal responsibility has its place—as does seeking regular, quality and affordable care. However, I have not heard these same executives discuss the conditions in which people live and how these conditions factor into their health.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a case of how poor policy contributes to a built environment negligence—and how the decision-makers involved contributed to possible lifelong health issues for Flint children. These health issues will undoubtedly cost far more than the $100 per day chemical that could have been used to treat the water properly.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is demonstrative of how the social determinants of health, and the need for health-related policy are all real and have real consequences.
It is my hope that all those in power while these decisions were made are forced to face consequences for the part they played in this public health disaster. Even greater, I hope that a meaningful and sustainable plan for the Flint community is being developed to mitigate this crisis. The Flint community cannot be allowed to languish in this state of fear and frustration—their lives will never be the same and they deserve better.
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