As early as October of 2014, General Motors announced that it would no longer use water from the Flint River because it had a corrosive effect on its auto parts. However, at the same time, thousands of Flint, Michigan residents were allowed to continue to use tap water from the Flint River in their daily lives for drinking, cooking, bathing, and other daily activities.
And they were told the water was safe.
What emerged was a perfect storm of errors made by Michigan public works experts as well as state officials who wanted to cut budgets. The end result was a clear case of environmental injustice that triggered health disparities. The tragedy about this public health crisis is that it was very preventable.
Flint is a mid-sized city of about 100,000 residents. Six out of 10 residents are African American or Hispanic. More than 25 percent of Flint residents live below the federal poverty level compared to an average of 10.5 percent for the entire state of Michigan. Perhaps the most significant statistic, given the nature of the environmental hazards in the Flint River, is that 27.3 percent of Flint’s population is under 18 years of age, and eight percent of the city’s total population is under five years of age.
The crux of the problem is that the Flint River water was highly corrosive to the lead pipes in certain areas of the city. Though Flint stopped using the river water the damaged pipes are still a threat.
Timeline of Events
The following brief sequence of events may be helpful in understanding how the problem evolved:
- As a cost-cutting measure Flint, under the direction of the Governor, appointed emergency manager and switched from drawing its water from the Detroit to the Flint River.
- Flint residents immediately began to complain about the smell, taste and appearance of the water. They also raised health concerns, reporting rashes, hair loss and other physical problems.
- In the summer of 2014, there were positive tests for coliform bacteria. It took 22 days for Michigan to issue a “boil-water advisory.”
- In October of 2014 a General Motors engine plant announced it had stopped using water from the Flint River because it was was causing parts to rust.
- A mother, concerned the growth of one of her children was stunted, contacted a specialist from Virginia after getting no adequate response from the state. This specialist concluded that there was indeed a problem, but was ignored by state officials.
- A group of doctors led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center independently tested a sample of Flint’s children and found unacceptably high levels of lead in the blood of those children. However, state environmental regulatory officials continued to insist the water is safe.
- In January of 2016, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint.
- A few days later, the Governor asked the Obama administration to declare Flint a major disaster area. President Obama signed an emergency declaration giving federal aid for Flint.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was dispatched to Flint to coordinate relief activities.
Flint water crisis especially harms children
Lead poisoning can be very harmful to children. The conditions associated with high lead level often manifest over time and are usually irreversible. Since the Flint water was being used for two years before any remedial actions began, it is likely that there are far more children with lead poisoning than the 100 that have already tested positive for the condition.
Adults in Flint and surrounding communities also are exposed to serious health problems. For instance, there have been numerous reports of skin rashes and hair loss among adults. There is also a suspected link between the polluted water supply and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. It has been reported that between June 2014 and November 2015 at least 87 county residents developed Legionnaires’ disease. Ten patients have since died of the disease.
Response from National Association of Social Workers Michigan Chapter
Given the magnitude of the water crisis in Flint, it is time for federal, state and local government to coordinate their efforts and financial resources to address the infrastructure of Flint’s water system, and to prevent and treat health conditions that are caused by exposure to lead and other toxins in the water.
It is heartening to see that there has been a national outcry about this disaster. Many individuals and corporations have contributed drinking water to Flint resident.
For example, the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Michigan Chapter issued a “call to action” to mobilize its members to work with city of Flint residents and public officials to provide volunteer services.
NASW Michigan’s Director of Public Policy Allan Wachendorfer said, “As the water crisis loomed, NASW Michigan knew it wanted to be involved in a meaningful way. The chapter’s call to action requested that its membership contribute their clinical skills to crisis counseling and their macro skills to coordinating relief efforts and collaborating with other agencies to link those at-risk to needed services.”
As of this writing, NASW Michigan’s call to action has attracted more than 160 social work volunteers and is “still growing”. The Michigan Chapter has developed a task force to look at long-term strategies. These efforts reflect one example of the way in which social workers’ skills can help manage a population-based public health crisis.
Was race a factor in state’s slow response to crisis?
We cannot ignore the implications of race/ethnicity and socio-economic status as being major factor in this dilemma. When we look at how all of this unfolded and the slowness of government to respond to what was a looming crisis, and the threats to the health of vulnerable populations, we are reminded that low-income African Americans and Hispanics took the brunt of the crisis. Their children are also likely to have to suffer the consequences for years to come. It is apparent that social determinants of health are central to Flint’s catastrophe.
We also cannot ignore the how environmental injustice helps to explain a failure of this magnitude can occur.
According to the National Institute of Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD): “An environmental injustice exists when members of disadvantaged, ethnic, minority or other groups suffer disproportionately at the local, regional (sub-national), or national levels from environmental risks or hazards, and/or suffer disproportionately from violations of fundamental human rights as a result of environmental factors, and/or denied access to environmental investments, benefits, and/or natural resources, and/or are denied access to information; and/or participation in decision making and/or access to justice in environment-related matters.”
What occurred in Flint fits that definition.
NASW and all others working to eliminate health disparities, must use their advocacy capacity to let the country know that the Flint, Michigan public health crisis should never happen again. We all have a responsibility to help monitor the environments where low-income and politically powerless reside and speak up when conditions are compromised either by a lack of governmental (or industrial) concern, or for the sake of so-called cost savings.
For more information about environmental injustice and health disparities please visit the following web pages:
NASW Contacts on Flint Water Crisis Issue
Mel Wilson, NASW Manger for Social Justice and Human Rights: firstname.lastname@example.org
Carrie Dorn, NASW Senior Practice Associate for Health: Cdorn@naswdc.org
Allan Wachendorfer, NASW-Michigan Director of Public Policy: email@example.com