Flint’s Water: Poisoned by Lead, and by Race

When Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was asked last week if the city of Flint’s lead poisoning had been caused by “environmental racism,” he replied tersely. “Absolutely not,” Snyder, a Republican, said.

Snyder was responding to an earlier story in the New York Times that asked why the state had waited so long to respond to reports of elevated lead levels in Flint’s poor (and mostly black) children, and why it had stonewalled outside investigations and misled the public. Would there have been such an agonizing delay, the Times asked, if Flint “were rich and mostly white”?

The crisis quickly became fodder for the presidential debate. Americans should be “outraged,” Hillary Clinton said. “We had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority-African American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. I’ll tell you what: if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.”

Whether or not Michigan’s slow response to a major public health crisis was intentionally influenced by racial indifference, there is no question that Flint’s lead poisoning is just the latest chapter in a story that has plagued poor African-American communities for a very long time.

The hazards of lead have been described in medical writings for 2,000 years, and concerns over lead-contaminated water were acknowledged in England as far back as the late 1700s. Lead is known to be toxic to the reproductive system, the liver and kidney, and the immune system. We have known for at least 40 years that even low-level lead poisoning can cause neurological damage in the developing brain, and that children exposed to lead are at higher risk of developmental deficits. And although the link between lead and cancer in humans is less clear, lead has been shown to cause kidney and brain tumors in animals. Recent studies indicate that lead may increase the risk of cancer by compromising a cell’s ability to protect or repair its DNA that has been damaged by other chemical exposures.

In this country, lead has been banned from paint since 1977, but a decade later 3 to 4 million children were still being poisoned each year. Lead remains a major problem, especially among poor African-Americans and other nonwhites, who have higher mortality rates at lower blood lead levels than whites.

The way lead poisoning stories get told reveals a great deal about American culture. In Flint, as in other American cities, lead poisoning — whether from rotting water pipes or paint peeling from rotting buildings — is commonly labeled a “social problem.” It is blamed on “decaying cities,” which are then forced to tap limited resources to repair ceaseless crises in health, housing, and infrastructure. By extension (and more insidiously), lead poisoning is often blamed on parents — or even their children, whose exposure to lead must be caused by ignorance or outright stupidity.

The truth, writes Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins, is that lead poisoning is caused by one thing, and one thing only: lead. And leaving it up to poor families to somehow avoid contamination is morally indefensible. “Placing the burden of risk reduction on consumers can result in unacceptable exposures to those most at risk,” Dr. Silbergeld writes. “For example, a young child getting up in the middle of the night for a drink of water, or a crying infant for whom parents are quickly mixing formula.”

Yet the lead industry, along with its allies in state and federal governments, has long been successful at deflecting responsibility for the health problems its products have caused. Felix Wormser, the onetime secretary of the Lead Industries Association, once referred to the poor, black and lead-poisoned children of inner-city Baltimore as “little rodents.”

Decades after battles began over lead paint, leaded gasoline, and lead pipes, exposure to lead continues to cause serious health problems, especially in poor cities. Scientists have found that lead can compromise the health of women in many stages of their adult lives, including pregnancy, breast-feeding, and during menopause. Lead, like calcium, is stored in the bones, and during these stages both can be released into the bloodstream. As a woman’s bones begin to thin during menopause, her blood lead level can rise as much as 25 percent, causing a rise in blood pressure, diminished cognitive skills, and declining kidney function. Other research has begun asking whether early exposure to lead might worsen the cognitive decline associated with aging.

Men can suffer from leaching lead as well; studies have shown men with higher blood lead levels had lower scores in manual dexterity, decision-making and verbal skills. Other research has begun asking whether early exposure to lead might worsen the cognitive decline associated with aging.

Getting rid of lead dramatically improves people’s health prospects. As leaded gasoline was phased out in the 1970s, women of childbearing age experienced dramatic decreases in blood lead levels, and the number of children under six years old with elevated blood lead declined from 88 percent in the 1970s to 1.6 percent in 2005.

Whether Flint has been contaminated by racism as well as lead poisoning, its recent struggles certainly fit a pattern. We are well served to remember Dr. Silbergeld’s words: “Only lead — not inadequate mothers, stupid children, or blighted cities — can cause lead poisoning.”


Mckay Jenkins is the author of ContamiNation: My Quest to Survive in a Toxic World, which is now available for purchase.