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Flint Michigan: A Public Health Disaster Akin To Tuskegee

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Flint Michigan: A Public Health Disaster Akin To Tuskegee

By Kevin Dedner

The news reports out of Flint, Michigan are ghastly horrendous. For those of you who have not paid much attention to the reports, you should because it’s an important story for so many reasons. In short, Flint was under control by the state of Michigan because of a law signed by Governor Rick Snyder. The law allows the Governor to appoint one person to run city affairs of cities that are under financial distress; completely making void local elections. This person has expansive powers including the ability to fire elected city officials, privatize services, break union contracts, and sell public assets.  That being said,  a state appointed administrator made a single decision to stop getting Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron (which they were paying the city of Detroit for), to the Flint River. This decision was made to save the city money.  The Flint River was known by locals to be dirty. Soon after the decision, residents began to make reports of the water coming into their homes colored brown, burning their skin, and tasting bad.  Yet, they were reassured by officials that the water was good for use. Officials even went so far to consume the water on local television to build the confidence of residents. But, it wasn’t safe. In fact, the water was highly corrosive; 19 times more than Lake Huron according to one study.

Like many American cities, Flint, MI has an aging infrastructure. Half of the water service lines are made of lead. When the water is not treated properly, lead and iron makes its way into the water supply. Lead is one of those silent slow creeping enemies. And, unfortunately it (lead) is a problem that is plaguing American cities.  While there are not many cases of lead making its way into the water supply, we do often see lead in older homes in paint chippings. Many cities have launched extensive public awareness campaigns about the dangers of lead.  Because, lead is most prevalent in older structures which are located in older racially segregated neighborhoods, those likely to be exposed are often poor and African American.  

According to the US Census , Flint, MI is nearly 60% African American.  Over 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. We know that where you live has an impact on your health and there’s a great deal of work taking place to improve neighborhoods around the country. However, it’s devastating to know that government officials would make a single decision to put so many peoples’ health at risk. And, after it became clear that there was a problem -do nothing.  What happened in Flint, MI is akin to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. The study is cited by many in public health as one of the main reasons that there is lack of trust of America’s public health system among African Americans and other minorities. The impact of this public health disaster which reports suggest could have been avoided for as little as 100 dollars a day will be far reaching both in public health and in public trust.

The World Health Organization says, “Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight, as well as minor malformations.”

It’s too early to fully understand what the long term health implications will be for the people of Flint and in particular the children. But, Flint should serve as a wakeup call to all public officials that compromising public health to save a few dollars isn’t worth it. The people of Flint are now getting the attention they deserve and it’s a story that won’t be going away any time soon. The tragedy of this whole situation is that it could have been avoided.

Kevin Dedner serves as senior consultant and managing director of Forward Solutions, a consulting firm providing strategic and technical guidance to advance sound policy that improves public health outcomes and fosters social change. Follow him on Twitter @kdedner.

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