Public Policy: Long-lasting repercussions for Flint

Jenn Ohn, Contributing Writer

In 2014, the Flint River became the primary source of water for the Flint, Mich. community. There were no corrosive control measures in place to protect the citizens of Flint from the toxicity of lead pipes. Studies showed that 4.9 percent of children tested in Flint had elevated levels of lead. Twenty-six out of the 4,000 samples collected contained lead levels higher than a staggering 150 parts per billion, ten-fold the recommended threshold of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This case in Flint inevitably begs the questions of what system would allow for this to slip through the cracks, and what is happening to make sure this won’t happen again? Contamination of the Flint water source began two years ago, only just surfacing in January. That is a strong indication of the government’s failure to respond at both the local and state levels. Not only was there a failure to respond, but there were active decisions made to publicly defend the safety of the water. The Flint city government issued a statement as early as April 2014 that the water was indeed safe to drink.

An ongoing investigation is underway about whether this issue is a matter of sheer ignorance or blatant criminality. With emails released in January, evidence shows that the state government had been limiting the access of Flint water to protect its own employees, while simultaneously telling the public the water was safe.

The conversation of accountability remains a top priority for the federal government. Not unlike many other issues, this one is already seeing partisan divides even within the federal government on what its role should be in addressing this issue further. The Democratic Party says that they will not pass a sweeping energy bill on the floor if the problem in Flint is not properly addressed.

There is a wealth of research about the effects that elevated levels of lead have on the development of children, and the results do not bode well for Flint. The data shows lead levels affect children’s growth and intelligence, which last the duration of their lifetimes. Children are especially vulnerable to high lead levels as the brain undergoes vital neural development before the age of five. Lead toxicity may lead to impaired fine motor skills and neural impairments. Many young children may be severely impaired as a result of the water in Flint. This public health crisis may not even reveal its worst effects until these children become adults.

Tackling this water crisis will be expensive and difficult. There are about 15,000 lead pipes in the city, and there is no way of knowing which ones prove problematic. The water source has reverted back to the water of Lake Huron; however, it may take up to six months for the lead levels to decline.

To the dismay of cities and communities across the country, lead poisoning is not an issue unique to Flint.

Dr. Philip Landrigan of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai was quoted in the New York Times, “We are indeed all Flint. Lead poisoning continues to be a silent epidemic in the United States.”

Instead, Flint serves as an example for the rest of the United States—an example of what happens when there is a systematic failure to respond at not just the governmental level. It is an example that will see salient, long-lasting consequences.

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