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PROFspectives: Flint Michigan

News Story

We've asked Pace experts in education, health care, and environmental issues to weigh in on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the long term effects the town may see, even after remediation.

On February 28, while many of us were at home watching Leo finally get his Oscar, the folks in Flint, Michigan, had their own star-studded night. The #JusticeforFlint Charity Concert, created by Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and Selma director Ava DuVernay, brought together artists like Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monáe and comedian Hannibal Burress for an evening of acknowledgement and fundraising for those who had been affected by the City's water woes. The event raised tens of thousands of dollars to support relief efforts in Flint, but the reality is, most people didn't even know it was happening.

Just under two years ago, the City of Flint changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River, corrosive water that went untreated and has since caused untold amounts of destruction for the citizens of the city. If you haven't been following the story, the corrosive water began damaging water supply pipes and causing high levels of lead to leak into the town's water. Since then, between 6,000–12,000 children have been exposed to the toxic water. We've asked our Pace experts to weigh in on the issues surrounding the water crisis and the long term effects the town may see, even after remediation.

How Do We Ensure Safe Drinking Water for All?

Marie Truglio-Londrigan PhD, RN, FNYAM, Professor of Nursing
Sandra B. Lewenson, EdD, RN, FAAN, Professor of Nursing

Professors Truglio-Londrigan and Lewenson are faculty members at the Lienhard School of Nursing within Pace University’s College of Health Professions.

The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, has sparked an awareness about public health hazards caused by an aging infrastructure and decisions being made without asking important antecedent questions. Critical questions were missed such as: what would happen if we made a change in our water delivery process? And, with these changes, how do we ensure that the population will have safe drinking water (one of the most basic elements for a healthy life)? Our leaders state that residents should not have to pay for water they cannot drink. A more appropriate statement would be: residents in Flint, or any place in America or the world for that matter, must have clean, safe drinking water. Our society sometimes forgets that clean water, air, and access to food does not just magically happen. As public health nurses, we are keenly aware of the fragility of our ecosystem. We all must safeguard it by voting and holding our leaders accountable. Without public health knowledge from all sectors, we run the risk of making decisions without answers to critical questions, and as a nation, continuing to poison the well. 

Social Injustice and the Cumulative Effects of Early Exposure to Lead

Raquel Plotka, PhD, Assistant Professor of Education
Fran Falk-Ross, PhD, Professor of Education

Professor Falk-Ross and Assistant Professor Plotka are faculty members at Pace University’s School of Education.

Despite three decades of public policy and lead exposure preventive efforts, there is persistent disparity by race, ethnicity, and income in exposure to lead, as is the case in Flint, where lead exposure is highest in poor immigrant neighborhoods. Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, and lead exposure in early childhood is related to later health, intellectual, and behavior outcomes (Educational Services for Children Affected by Lead Expert Panel. Educational interventions for children affected by lead. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2015). The latest data indicate that lead exposure in the early years, even at blood lead levels below the 10 mg/dl federal guideline (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010), is associated with lower IQ and school-based content achievement test scores and lower behavior regulation. It is estimated that for 5-year-olds, there is a loss of about 1.4 IQ points for each increase of 1 mg/dl in the blood.

Lead exposure in early childhood can have a significant impact on later development, and the effects could continue throughout childhood and into adolescence, resulting in cumulative cognitive deficits such as lowered IQ, greater impulsivity, and diminished opportunities. The cognitive effects, in turn, may contribute to risk for school dropout and early parenthood (Dilworth-Bart &Colleen F. Moore, 2006). For example, in a well-documented lead study, lead exposure measured prenatally and at 6-years of age was significantly associated with higher self-reported delinquency levels in adolescence even though blood lead in adolescence had dropped to relatively low levels (Dietrich et al., 2001). Policymakers have an important role in correcting the inequitable risks of exposure to lead through effective interventions and public education.

Water Crises Like Flint, Michigan’s, May Be Inevitable

John Cronin, Senior Fellow for Environmental Affairs, Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies
John Cronin is the managing faculty of the Pace Environmental Policy Clinic, as well as the editor of Institute's EarthDesk blog.

As I write, community members are gathering in the Mercy Hall Meeting Room at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, to discuss “Flint, Michigan and the Fundamental Right to Water.” Across the nation, citizens are asking, “How safe is my water?” Reassurances come quickly. “Stockton Isn’t Flint,” reads a headline on California’s KCET public television website.

But back in Michigan, where embattled Governor Rick Snyder is accused of allowing, and then ignoring, extensive lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water, spokesman Ari Adler warned, "What happened in Flint is a crisis, but Flint is not alone.” The governor’s aide may be in a defensive crouch, but he is more right than he knows. The nation’s waters have been in dangerous straits for decades.

A 2008 study by University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health found that 19.5 million Americans are made ill annually by parasites, bacteria, and viruses in drinking water. In January 2015, I asked chief researcher Kelly Reynolds, PhD, if the seven year-old figure is still accurate. Based on new information, “the number is likely higher,” she said.

Since the mid-1980s, more than 40% of the nation’s waters have been of substandard quality. Fish health advisories due to toxic contamination cover more than 17.7 million lake acres and 1.3 million river miles, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. More than 5,000 swimming days are lost annually due to contamination by disease-causing pathogens. These are conservative estimates.

The College of St. Mary posed the issue properly: there is a fundamental right to water. But the 44 year-old Federal Clean Water Act and 42 year-old Safe Drinking Water Act provide no comprehensive strategy for protection of public health, and the nation is three decades behind schedule in the statutory goals for elimination of pollution. Meanwhile, political fractiousness in Washington makes reform of the outmoded laws seem impossible. Even the websites of the “progressive” presidential candidates are missing detailed solutions.

Water may be a national crisis, but it is a profoundly local issue, as testified by thousands of news stories set in hundreds of US communities monthly. Until those communities and their public officials demand federal policy reform in a common voice, tragedies like Flint, and the illnesses of millions of Americans, will remain with us.

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