The residents of Flint, Michigan have so much lead in their bloodstreams that the mayor has declared a state of emergency.
“The City of Flint has experienced a man-made disaster,” wrote Flint Mayor Karen Weaver in a Monday statement, where she requested an emergency meeting on the issue “no later than the end of December 2015.”
Weaver focused specifically on the threat to children’s health, calling the damage from lead poisoning “irreversible.” Not only does lead negatively impact a child’s brain development, but, according to Weaver, it also increases the burden on the city’s mental health, special education, social service, and juvenile justice systems.
This declaration comes on the heels of a September report that found the number of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city was switched from the Detroit water system to a temporary water source in 2014.
This recent switch is where the problem lies. For decades, Flint relied on neighboring Detroit for its purified water. But after the economic recession hammered Detroit into bankruptcy, Flint residents and businesses saw a exorbitant spike in water prices, pushing the city into a 3.5-year-long financial state of emergency.
So Flint decided to join forces with other Detroit-reliant governments to build a new, independent water system. But officials estimated that it would take at least five years to get this new expensive water system up and running. So, in the meantime, the state hooked the city up to the 40-year-old pipes funneling water from the nearby Flint River — a river poisoned by a corrosive agent that caused lead to leech from the pipes and contaminate the city’s drinking water.
In October, after 26,000 residents presented a petition demanding an end to toxic drinking water, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) finally freed up the money to bring Flint back onto the Detroit water system.
But it was too late for Flint residents. In November, citizens filed a class-action federal lawsuit against Snyder, the city, the state, and 13 other public officials for replacing their clean water with a “cheaper alternative that was known to be highly toxic.” Emails released through an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit show that state officials knew about the problems with the river water for months before owning up to it publicly.
Meanwhile, the city is still in serious debt from the $15.7 million it took out of its budget to cover Detroit’s water bill hikes. That payback comes directly from public water bills, raised 35 percent in 2011, which many are unable to pay. Regardless, the city continues to shut off water to homes and businesses with negative accounts — leaving the poorest residents without any access to clean water.
It’s nearly identical to Detroit’s water problems, where water shutoffs in hundreds of low-income households sparked city-wide protest and were dubbed an official human rights violation by the United Nations.
These events join a history of inequities when it comes to public access to free, sanitary water. A 2011 UN investigation found that people of color living in poverty in the United States disproportionately lack sufficient access to clean water. This claim has been repeatedly supported by stories from water-desperate communities across the country.