Lessons from the Flint Water Crises


By now, most people in Michigan are well aware of the crisis in Flint with lead in the water. The problem began almost two years ago when Flint’s municipal water supply stopped contracting with the City of Detroit to provide water and started using local water sources. It wasn't until five months ago that a Virginia Tech study said the water was not only dirty and unpalatable, but also resulted in an increase in lead poisoning among the city's children. With that news, the story exploded onto the national scene, catching the attention of celebrities like Erin Brockovich, Rachel Maddow, Michael Moore, and Cher. The stories mounted daily on local news sources like MLive.

Standing in solidarity.

The Healthy Homes Coalition stands in strong solidarity with the people of Flint. It is clear that no one should be poisoned by lead through the municipal water supply. The mounting numbers of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood is a tragedy and the fact that this was allowed to happen is just plain wrong.

Assigning the responsibility for the problem is much more difficult, especially for those of us who are further removed from the situation and have limited access to the facts. Slowly but surely those facts are coming to light, and it is our hope that systems will be corrected and those who neglected their duties will be held accountable.

We sincerely wish that we could turn back time for the children exposed. Those children and their families are certainly deserving of some recompense.

We admire the impact of researchers partnering with effective community activists to help us all recognize and admit that no child should be exposed to toxic lead, especially through their municipal water supply. The people of Flint and their allies have done some incredibly brave work.

So what does this mean for Grand Rapids and the rest of the State?

First, this experience highlights the importance and effectiveness of aligning data with community activism. While community organizers sometimes win victories in spite of access to data, data alone rarely solves the problem. This is especially true of thorny problems where those in power seem to hold responsibility.

Which leaves us asking, “Why is the public not just as enraged about children being exposed to lead-based paint?”

We don't ask this question to diminish what has happened in Flint. We are clearly of the opinion that injustice happened there and needs to be fixed. By combining data and activism in Flint, they have moved from asking questions to demanding answers. The rest of the state can learn from Flint.

Two problems to be fixed.

There are two problems to be fixed in Michigan—the new problem with water in Flint and the age-old problem of lead-based paint in Michigan homes.

In 2014, there were 174 lead poisoned children in Flint. That number is certain to climb in 2015 and perhaps 2016, but steps are beginning to fall into place to rapidly address exposure to lead in water. Across the rest of the state in 2014, there were another 4,875 children exposed, the vast majority through hazards involving lead-based paint and lead dust in the home.

Across the state, we need to move from asking when people will begin to care about children exposed to lead-based paint in their own homes to demanding that they care. We need to start demanding that those who can do something take action. We need to follow the lead of Flint.

While many across the state are acting, the data tells us that too many people are still sitting on the sidelines.

For example, in Grand Rapids in 2013, two out of every three one and two-year olds (63%) received a blood lead test. Federal, state, and industry guidance tell us that ALL children at one and two years of age should be tested in Grand Rapids. We need to not only ask why the other 37% were not tested, but we also need to demand that health care practitioners and parents take action.

In 2013, the 49507 zip code on the southeast side of Grand Rapids had the highest number of children with elevated blood lead levels of any zip code in the state of Michigan. 157 children were poisoned. In most cases, that exposure came from toxic lead dust in their homes. 157 lead-poisoned children is unacceptable. We need to demand that landlords, homeowners, and parents step up and make homes lead-safe. And we need to demand that those who can play a supportive role take action too. This means banks need to ask about lead hazards when providing financing and need to provide access to capital. Code enforcement and those who provide federal HUD funds need to make sure their inspections are effective in curbing hazards. Social service agencies need help educate parents and support them in avoiding or fixing hazards.

Like the people of Flint, we need elected officials and those who work for them to accept the urgency that no child should be exposed to a toxic metal that we have know harms children. We knew more than 100 years that lead is toxic to kids, and the federal government banned the sale of lead-based household paint nearly 40 years ago. Banning lead-based paint stopped the flow of the hazard into children's homes. But that was just the first step.

Reattaching Flint to a safe water supply is the first step too. We know it is not the last step. Many more steps are to be taken to protect children from harm, both in Flint and across Michigan. It's not enough to stop delivering lead into children's homes. We need to cleanup what got left behind, and we need to make sure that the children so innocently affected receive the supportive services they deserve.

Flint got our attention. We need to solve that problem completely and quickly. And we need to use it as a reminder that our work to remove all lead hazards in children's homes is far from done. Whether it is lead in water or lead in paint, we need to respond to either situation with equal urgency and importance.

How you can help.

The Healthy Homes Coalition invites you to join us in acting.  Here are four simple ways you can take action.

  1. When Flint comes up in conversation, support the children of Flint by agreeing that wrong was done and that solutions are urgent. Then ask your conversation partner how they can support the children of Flint, or the children in their own community, by calling for an end to lead exposure in children’s homes whether it come from water, paint, or soil.
  2. Join the Healthy Homes Coalition on March 6 when we go to Lansing with the Michigan Lead-Safe Partnership to provide our elected officials with both information and activism on the topic of lead in children’s homes.
  3. Support the Healthy Homes Coalition financially so we can continue to engage in advocacy, something for which our restricted grants and contracts do not pay.
  4. Think about the children and parents in your life.  Are they aware of the hazard? Do they need help making their home safer? Get personal and provide information and provide support.

We’d like to hear how you might be able to help. Either contact us directly or leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


Article from Bridge: Far from Flint, lead remains an irreversible scourge