Material World: Collateral damage in Flint

The wheels of justice turn slowly, and the effects of lead poisoning are also slow and pernicious.

The city of Flint’s water crisis began in April 2014. In a cost-saving measure to save around $5m the state-appointed city manager changed the city’s water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water, sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, to water from the Flint River. General Motors used the river as its private dumping ground for decades; it is highly polluted and highly acidic.

Typically, water in mass systems at the city and wider level is treated with corrosion inhibiters, chemical compounds which reduce the likelihood of pipes corroding. Officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the Flint River water, in defiance of federal law, causing lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply. Michigan state officials insisted that the water was safe, ignoring calls for the water supply to be switched back to the Detroit system on the grounds that switching back would be too expensive. It wasn’t until September 2015 that a report revealed that 40 percent of Flint homes had dangerously elevated lead levels, and declared Flint water unfit to drink. Eventually in October 2015 the state finally agreed to switch Flint back to the Lake Huron supply, but the damage had already been done. Many people had got sick. Potentially thousands of children were exposed to hazardous levels of lead. The full extent of the damage is still unclear and isn’t likely to be known for some time.

What does lead do to the human body? Infants and small children can suffer brain and nervous system damage, weakened immune systems and general physical collapse that can lead to death. Pregnant women have a higher risk of stillbirth or miscarriage. A raft of studies has pretty much concluded that lead can cause cancer. It causes cardiovascular diseases and kidney damage which, like cancer, can also kill. Five parts of lead per billion are a concern. 5,000 parts per billion is considered toxic waste. From April 2014 until October 2015 the people of Flint were drinking water with up to 13,000 parts per billion of lead in it.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality officials urged people worried about lead in Flint’s drinking water to ‘relax,’ saying that there was no ‘broad problem’ with contamination. They described the whistleblower EPA official, Miguel Del Toral, whose draft report initially alerted lead-poisoned Flint residents to their great danger, as a ‘rogue employee.’ They also attacked the work of Virginia Tech expert Marc Edwards and his team of graduate students, which revealed that some Flint tap water measured nearly 2.5 times more lead contamination than the EPA’s hazardous waste designation level. They cast doubts upon Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Flint’s Hurley Hospital whose research showed that after the switch to untreated Flint River drinking water, blood lead levels in children doubled, or even tripled. Residents were left to drink poisoned water for months despite warnings from experts.

Edwards explained, ‘In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem’.

There are presently court cases against former and current state government officials. On April the 1st, US District Court Judge Judith Levy declared that former Governor Rick Snyder can be sued by residents in Flint. Levy wrote in her ruling:

‘Plaintiffs plausibly state that the Governor acted indifferently to the risk of harm they faced, demonstrating a callous disregard for their right to bodily integrity. This indifference manifested itself in two ways. Initially, the Governor was indifferent because instead of mitigating the risk of harm caused by the contaminated water, he covered it up. In private, he worried about the need to return Flint to DWSD water and the political implications of the crisis. But in public, he denied all knowledge, despite being aware of the developing crisis… As a result, plaintiffs were lured into a false sense of security. They could have taken protective measures, if only they had known what the Governor knew. Instead, the Governor misled them into assuming that nothing was wrong. Governor Snyder’s administration even encouraged them to continue to drink and bathe in the water.’

People in Flint and their children were merely collateral damage in a larger war. Which war? The class war of the capitalists against everybody else.