Tag Archives: lead poisoning

The Flint Water Disaster: A Perfect Storm of Downplaying, Denial, and Deceit

Gregory V. Button

Flint, Michigan, the city portrayed as the embodiment of a rust belt city abandoned by deindustrialization in Michael Moore’s allegorical documentary, Roger & Me, has recently become a morality play of a different sort as it captures national headlines highlighting a controversial series of decisions creating a major public health crisis that threatens the health of Flint’s children.

After numerous complaints of the rising costs of the City of Detroit’s water and sewerage system, which the city had been dependent on for decades, the City of Flint’s controversial, non-elected, state appointed emergency manager decided in 2013 to switch from Detroit’s water system, and obtain water for the city from the Flint River until an alternative source could be developed.  The decision insured, if nothing else, that banks and bondholders to which the city is indebted, would be paid.

The decision ended up being a tragic mistake of major proportions. After the switch was made in April 2014 problems soon developed because the Flint River’s water proved to be highly corrosive, releasing lead from the old plumbing fixtures in Flint’s homes, factories, and schools. The water was so corrosive that the local GM engine plant switched their plant’s water system to another supplier because the automaker was concerned that the Flint River water would corrode their auto parts.

Tragically, the situation could have been avoided if the state had followed the EPA mandate to install corrosive preventative measures when lead levels in drinking water exceed recommended levels.  State officials further undermined the state’s integrity and the public’s confidence by claiming they were not required to install mandatory corrosive controls.

As lead levels rapidly rose to levels far exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended lead levels in public drinking water, Flint residents complained of malodorous, darkly colored water flowing from their home faucets, hair loss, headaches, and itchy eyes. Eventually some residents, including children, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Local officials downplayed the residents’ complaints and insisted that the water was safe to drink. For over a year, during which a series of mind-baffling decisions were made by the state, officials continued to downplay and deny the existence of a crisis. In an effort to avoid the scrutiny of the public, researchers, and federal authorities, state officials seemed to have chosen state and bureaucratic interests over and above the public good, creating a vortex of uncertainty and unnecessarily and inexcusably prolonging the crisis. The river water increased the exposure of Flint residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin that crosses the brain’s barrier and can adversely affect nearly every system in the body. Lead endangers the health of both children and adults causing slow growth, learning disabilities, anemia, and hearing problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.

As evidence continued to mount that there was a serious public health problem, local and state officials continued to downplay the situation, deny that there was a problem, and deceive the public even when scientific evidence emerged contradicting their claims .  Residents were stunned when documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state public health officials had, in an effort to deceive the public, altered documents contradicting the officials’ claim that the water was safe to drink.

In the ensuing months as state officials continued their denials and cover-ups local residents and independent public health researchers accused officials of hiding data, misleading the public and ignoring solid scientific research that clearly demonstrated the public was at risk. Independent researchers from the University of Virginia provided robust evidence demonstrating that lead levels in sampled city water exceeded 100 parts per billion.

This was a staggering finding: the EPA allows only 15 parts per billion in drinking water and, in reality, there is really no level that is considered to be safe. Additionally, a team of physicians and public health researchers published a report that showed that elevated lead blood levels increased after the water switch from 2.9% to 4.9% and in some neighborhoods rose as high as 6.3%.

Residents were further shocked when it was eventually revealed, through yet another FOIA request, that city, county, and state officials believed in the aftermath of the water switch that a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, resulting in the death of ten people, may have been attributable to the switch of the city’s water to the polluted waters of the Flint River.

Outrage continued recently when it was revealed that top administrators in the EPA’s regional Midwest office were aware, as long ago as last April, of Flint’s failure to install mandatory corrosion controls and the potential for adverse public health effects. Instead of informing the public of their concern, they delayed releasing the information to the public for several months while they battled with the state over EPA’s legal authority to enforce the federal mandate requiring Flint to install corrosion controls.

Over a year and a half after the crisis began, the state finally relented. Governor Snyder tardily apologized for the tragedy to the citizens of Flint, declared a state emergency, called out National Guard troops to distribute bottled water, and eventually asked President Obama to declare a national emergency, which would enable the state to receive federal assistance. On January 16, 2016 President Obama declared a ninety-day federal emergency, thereby qualifying the city of Flint to receive bottled water, water filters, filter cartridges and other items. Unfortunately, the declaration does not provide the state of Michigan with an estimated $600 million dollars necessary to replace Flint’s deteriorating water system, which may be the only way to fully alleviate the problem in the long-term.

Local and national media coverage of this tragic event has garnered considerable national attention resulting in calls ranging from a demand for a federal investigation to the arrest of Governor Snyder (a man whose corporate approach to government and reliance on unelected, state appointed emergency managers is thought by many to undermine local democracy). There are even some people who embrace a conspiracy theory that the children of Flint were poisoned intentionally.

Outrage has been propelled not only by what some believe to be gross malfeasance but also because of the fact that Flint, one of the poorest municipalities in the State of Michigan, has long suffered from racial discrimination, and ranks at the bottom of the state in rates of childhood poverty – as well as the glaring fact that 41.5 % of its residents live below the poverty level and nearly 60% of Flint residents are African American (see  Hanna, A. J. Le Chance, R.C. Sadler, A. C. Schnepp. 2015 “Elevated lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response.” American Journal of Public Health. Available online: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003); all of which, even upon initial observation, makes a compelling case for a  morality play about structural violence.

The author has been investigating the Flint water crisis since its inception and is currently writing a journal article and a report on the ongoing crisis. He can be reached at gregvorybutton@mac.com and 734-417-3371.

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Anthropological perspectives on migration, food and nutrition

Preparing injera, a transnational Ethiopian dietary staple

With the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we republish SAFN’s monthly news column from that publication.  This is the May 2011 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

In this column we highlight a recently published NAPA Bulletin (vol 34), “Anthropological Perspectives on Migration and Health,” edited by SAFN President Craig Hadley. Articles in this volume address the diet and nutrition of various migrant groups that navigate complex and changing cultural, political and economic contexts.

Hadley’s introduction underlines that interactions between migration and health are highly complex. Anthropologists and allied health professionals have struggled with this complexity, hindered by the use of categorizations that obscure the heterogeneity between and within migrant populations; by imprecise proxy measures of acculturation, which are unable to specify mechanisms by which migration can impact health; and by too often focusing on the health impacts of individual-level agency and group-level cultural norms rather than on social inequalities and public policies that limit access to wealth and information.

Heide Castañeda provides a theoretical and methodological overview, asking what larger anthropological questions can be advanced by studying migrant health. She notes that the study of migrant health highlights global inequities related to labor and health care. The study of migration and health also encourages a rethinking of borders, connections and identities, and ideally forces anthropologists to consider how the knowledge they produce affects study participants and serves certain political agendas. Castañeda asserts that widespread reliance on charity clinics, volunteerism and humanitarian efforts for providing migrants with health care reflects that societies have become accustomed to inequality, and that states are unwilling to address “conflicting economic and political demands related to the continued need for certain forms of migrant labor” (p 20).

SAFN Treasurer Crystal Patil and colleagues report on exploratory ethnographic study of food access and diet among refugee groups of various African and Asian countries resettled in Midwestern US cities. The authors note that refugees face many challenges and opportunities as they transition from low-income contexts characterized by high mortality and low reliance on processed foods to high-income contexts characterized by low mortality and high reliance processed foods. Their ethnographic data suggest multiple ways in which “health and well-being are produced and eroded on arrival in the United States” (p 155), involving interactions among the resources and services available within environments of resettlement, migration geopolitics, the influences of peers, resettlement agencies and ethnocultural norms, as well as individual characteristics and household socioeconomic status.

Ramona Pérez, Margaret Handley and James Grieshop provide an account of the political, economic and nutritional implications of lead-contaminated ceramic cookware produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. This cookware is sent along with food care packages to migrant families in Monterey County, California through envios. In the late 1990s, the cookware was linked to lead toxicity resulting in gastrointestinal distress, severe headaches and malaise, which were detected among Mexican-American children seeking care at public clinics in Monterey County. In California, the public policy response was to conduct unannounced health inspections on businesses thought to be involved in the envios system, to confiscate food items and threaten to fine the businesses. This approach was perceived as akin to racial profiling and discrimination and drove some envios underground. In Mexico, the policy response has been largely nonexistent because Mexican officials do not consider lead exposure a significant problem. In addition, the Mexican state cannot afford to provide ceramic-producing communities with resources necessary for production techniques that do not require lead. Faced with these sensitive political and economic challenges, Pérez and colleagues decided that one way to address the health impacts of lead exposure was through nutritional programming in both Oaxaca and California. Promoting diets rich in calcium and iron can prevent the rapid absorption of lead. While this approach does not eliminate the problem, it “provides profound opportunity for a healthier life despite the lack of intervention by Mexican government officials and absence of community based health programming by health officials in the Monterey area” (p 120).

Other food and nutrition-focused articles in the volume include Horton and Barker’s on the diets and oral health statuses of Mexican immigrants and their children in California’s Central Valley; Dharod and Croom’s on the prevalence of child hunger among Somali refugee households in Lewiston, Maine; and Trapp’s on the implementation of the USDA and Office of Refugee Resettlement Food and Nutrition Outreach program.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

Posted by Kenneth Maes.

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