Flint, Michigan

For months, the government told the residents of Flint, Michigan that the water was safe to drink. People were going to the hospital, kids were getting rashes, and the water smelled funny, but the government insisted that there was nothing wrong. However, government officials had switched over to using bottled water months before they told the residents that their water was contaminated with lead.

Flint, Michigan is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. As a city in extreme poverty, the government decided to ‘cut costs’ by switching from using Detroit’s water system to using the Flint River, which would save the city an estimated $5 million. The river water, however, contained minerals that were corrosive to the protective layer of their lead water pipes, causing the city’s water to be contaminated with lead. Residents complained about the taste, smell and appearance of water, but officials insisted that the water met safety standards.

Lead poisoning is a serious, serious issue that has not been given enough attention in the media. Elevated lead exposure in youth causes decline in IQ, which produces decline in ability to think critically, self-control, ability to pay attention, etc.. According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure “affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.” Essentially, what Flint has done will not only effect the physical health of its population, but it will deteriorate the mental health of the population, perpetuating the poverty that it has tried so desperately to escape. Since even minimal lead exposure causes significant decline in IQ, it will impact the decision-making of Flint’s youth – crime, teen pregnancies and drug use will increase as these children grow. Flint’s mayor said that the “city will need to spend more on special education and mental health services” as a result of lead poisoning.

National Geographic photographer Wayne Lawrence went into Flint, and documented the stories and portraits of it’s residents (see work here). People discussed how they bathed their children in this water, and how the water smelled and looked funny but officials insisted it was okay. People talked about the rashes, itchiness and dry skin the water caused. They talked about how they had been drinking the water for months, and feeding it to their babies. They discussed how it’s impossible to live off bottled water – how can they bathe and shower? They even talked about how some people continued to consume and use the lead-contaminated water, because they couldn’t afford a car to drive to the fire stations where bottled water was provided for free.

There is no doubt that mistakes happen. But what is so disgustingly shocking is that after hundreds of complaints, after officials knew there was something wrong with the water, why did it take so long for the government to tell the public that their water was contaminated with lead? Was it because of their skin color? Social class? The government is supposed to protect its citizens, not destroy them. What happened here?!?

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