In Flint, Latinos Were the Last Ones to Know of Lead Poisoning

These days when Juani Olivares sees her nephew, she knows something has been taken away from the two-year-old. He speaks much slower than someone his age should, and at one point, mysterious eczema-like rashes appeared on his skin.

Like the other children of Flint, Michigan, where parents and children were unknowingly poisoning themselves with lead from the city’s drinking water for months, these types of symptoms were not unusual — it was normal.

Although the plight of the city’s residents has been well documented, the Flint water crisis has had an even more devastating impact on its Latino population, who were the last ones to know they were being poisoned. With no bilingual information provided from officials, the Spanish-speaking community of Flint was left to scramble for clean water, many fearful that their immigration status might be exposed if they reached out to authorities.

The story of Flint’s Latino population illustrates the horrors Latinos nationwide face when it comes to environmental safety and the helplessness felt when there is no response from the government.

From Connecticut to California, Latinos face disproportionate dangers from environmental degradation, often living dangerously close to plants, factories and highways. Lacking the means to move, and in many cases the language skills or immigration status to protest, they are at higher risk for developing asthma and pulmonary disease.

The effects of climate change are already hitting U.S. Latinos hard as more than half of the population lives in California, Texas, and Florida, three states dealing with massive drought, heat waves, and rise in sea level.

By now the tragedy of Flint’s water crisis has been widely reported and explained. In 2014, an unelected emergency manager switched the city’s water source from the Detroit River system to Flint’s corrosive river water, a penny-pinching move made to relieve the finances of the poverty-stricken city.

Residents quickly noticed the murkiness and bad smell of the river water. While the city denied anything was wrong, ten people died in an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, kids began developing itchy skin rashes on their limbs and faces, and residents began bringing bottles of brown water to city meetings.

Bacteria, chemicals, and lead — which can affect the development of children’s brains and nervous systems — contaminated drinking water, yet, safety officials repeatedly insisted it was drinkable. It took until January for Governor Rick Snyder to finally acknowledge the problem and declare a state of emergency, 10 months after the switch.

Officially, Latinos make up nearly four percent of Flint’s population although approximately 1,000 are not included in the figure because they are undocumented, says Olivares.

“They pretty much all live in poverty,” Olivares said. “They work crazy hours in restaurants, but they don’t get much pay.”

Flint’s undocumented population also faces an additional risk to the water: deportation because of their unauthorized status.

Most residents knew to stay away from the tainted water for months, dating back to October 2015. When Olivares went knocking door-to-door as recently as January in Flint’s predominantly Latino east side when she was chair of the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative, she noticed an alarming pattern. There had been no attempt to notify immigrant families about the lead in the water.

“I started asking some of the families that I work with, and they were like, ‘No we didn’t receive anything and if we did it was in English and we just threw it away,’” Olivares said. “Some of them didn’t even know what lead was. I had to explain and give them knowledge about something they had no idea about.”

Many on the city’s east side do not speak English, so when flyers and information were distributed, the city’s failure to print material in Spanish left many members of the community unaware of what was going on. The human impact of letting residents keep on drinking the corrosive water has been nearly fatal.

One young mother and her infant tested for lead levels of 29 micrograms/dL because the mother, unbeknownst to her, continued to drink from the water and breastfed during her pregnancy. Anything above a lead level of 5 in children requires testing and monitoring. The baby began having seizures before being able to talk.

As awareness among those living in the east side grew and bottled water distribution centers began popping up to bring some reassurance to Flint, the undocumented community’s fear of being deported heightened as a new threat moved into town.

For a week, residents were required to show identification to access bottled water and filters. Even after the governor called for an end to the practice, advocates reported that it persisted, and distributors were still demanding identification for filters. Flint’s undocumented chose to forgo clean bottled water and filters because they feared they would be harassed for identification at fire stations and other water distribution centers.

The problem worsened as ICE agents began invading vulnerable areas, residents say.

“Not (only) have I heard, I’ve seen them,” Olivares said. “Just like when I’m going from one meeting to another, I’ve seen them driving through downtown Flint or heading to the east side. In the beginning they were going to the grocery store, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they just parked there.”

The risk of deportation scared off undocumented immigrants from opening their doors to volunteers handing out safe drinking water because the crisis coincided with nationwide raids carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the beginning of January that detained 121 individuals. Eleven people from Michigan were detained during those raids.

Despite reassurance from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alleging there would be no raids in Flint because of the crisis, for people on the east side, fear of being undocumented overshadowed health concerns as the effort of accessing clean water while remaining hidden from ICE agents proved difficult to navigate.

But Latino residents there were denied more than just clean water. For the most part, health coverage is not extended to undocumented residents; this is true in Flint. When the state government approved Medicaid expansion in March for residents exposed to the water, it did not request to waive the legal status requirement, leaving many undocumented children and expectant mothers to remain untreated.

One young girl tested for a lead level of 50, but because she was undocumented, no doctor or hospital would treat her. After reaching a lead level of 45, hospitalization is needed to test for functioning kidneys and brain development. To this day, Olivares doubts the girl has been taken for.

“No child should be going through that just because you are not a legal citizen or legal resident,” Olivares said. “It’s just wrong; they’re human beings and they should have the same treatment as anyone else, especially through a crisis like the one we’re going through.”

Flint is not an isolated episode. Very often, low-income minority communities have no one else to rely on for protection except government institutions, which can fall to the wayside when addressing needs for places of low political clout. The trickle down effect hits the most vulnerable residents the hardest.

What the Flint water crisis has exposed is the alarming level of environmental issues minority communities face, not just in Flint, but across the country. Latinos can face discrimination with every breath and every sip of water they take.

The Flint experience has brought environmental racism to a new level of awareness among the general public. When the public thinks of Latino issues, immigration reform takes up much of the conversation; environmental problems and their disproportionately danger to Latino lives are rarely discussed.

Little attention is given to the fact that half of all Latinos live in the country’s most polluted cities and are exposed to toxins like lead all the time. Places like Los Angeles County, Chicago, and Houston, home to large populations of Latinos, have numerous sites that produce chemicals, and can potentially set up Latinos to undergo significant harm if there is a chemical release and no secure evacuation plan.

Latinos have a 60 percent higher chance of living in fenceline zones — areas extremely close to dangerous chemical facilities — than the U.S. as a whole, and low-income Latino children are also more than twice as likely to live in these zone than white children living above the poverty line, according to the Center for Effective Government, a nonprofit organization which works towards more transparency in executive agencies.

The predominantly Latino neighborhood of Fair Haven, Connecticut is separated by a chemically infested river from an abandoned coal power plant that closed two decades ago. Like Flint, Fair Haven is also a low-income area where residents on average earn less than $36,000, and Latinos and blacks earn one-third less than white locals. The neighborhood’s low-income Latinos still rely on fish from the river to feed their families despite it being contaminated with asbestos and PCBs, which cause cancer.

CEG reviewed more than 12,500 U.S. industrial facilities that report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and identified Connecticut as one the many places that has disproportionate amount of environmental hazards near Latino and black neighborhoods. The center’s report called on the EPA to increase its protection of communities like Fair Haven, however, even the EPA is complicit in ignoring environmental concerns in low-income communities of color, according to reports.

The non-profit news organization Center for Public Integrity found that the EPA’s civil rights office received hundreds of complaints against local and state agencies in the past 22 years from poor African American and Latino communities, but has never once filed a civil rights violation.

In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, more than 80 percent of landfills do not follow safety regulations set by the EPA. Of the landfills, 22 of the 27 spread throughout the island fall outside of normal safety guidelines, going without proper equipment to stop toxins from running into local waters, but the EPA has not taken action to address the problem for decades, simply stating in 2011, “landfills in Puerto Rico have not always been closed in accordance with the minimum federal and state regulations.”

Five communities just last July sued the agency for taking longer than a decade to decide whether or not to proceed with its investigation of possible environmental discrimination in those communities. The EPA also drew sharp criticism for not pressuring state officials in Michigan fast enough to help people in Flint.

With greater risk of living next to power plants, roadways, factories and other hazardous spaces that emit pollutants, the consequences of ignoring these environmental issues is visible in how Latino children are at higher risk of dying of asthma than non-Latino whites, and Latino workers, especially immigrants, work in agricultural and construction jobs that exposes them to toxic chemicals all the time. And nearly one in three Latinos are without health insurance.

Olivares will never be able to trust her city’s water again or any other city’s public water again. Her nephews rely on bottled water for everything from showering, brushing their teeth, to washing their faces. She says officials ask people in Flint to flush their water 15 minutes before using it, but she has little confidence that will do anything to take away the death-ridden chemicals from the water. She is staying in Flint to fight, until the entire undocumented community has all the services they need.

“The undocumented residents cannot just get up, pack up, and go somewhere else to find a job. It’s not that easy,” Olivares lamented. “They’re pretty much stuck here, and a lot of the residents are stuck in the same boat. They just don’t have the funds to just get up and leave.”

Flint is a national tragedy. The failure of institutions meant to protect the public always hit the poor the hardest. For Latinos, until attention is paid to immigration, environmental degradation and poverty, it can only be a matter of time until the next Flint crisis arises.

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