FLINT, MI — The Planned Parenthood in Flint, in a modest brick building off a lonely stretch of highway, might not seem like an obvious first stop for a resident concerned about the strangely colored, bad smelling water that started coming out of taps in the city in early 2014.
But for those who work inside, tackling the issue of access to potable water was a no brainer once patients began voicing concerns. As a preventative health organization with deep roots in the local community, the conversation came naturally.
After hearing reports from their patients about chemicals in the water, the clinic sprang into action months before any state of emergency was declared, handing out water filters and teaching people how to use them.
“We’re more than just a reproductive health organization, we work for reproductive justice,” explained Christina Soliz, field organizer with Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan. “Having access to clean, safe water is a reproductive justice issue. It affects your health. Families deserve better than this.”
“It fits right in,” agreed Sabrina Boston, the health center manager. Water is “a basic human right.”
The staff is particularly focused on the reproductive health impacts of the contaminated water, which in some homes has so much lead in it that it meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of toxic waste. “What we’ve been educating on and trying to get patients to understand is the reproductive health care,” Boston said.
In men, lead exposure can reduce sperm count, staff explained. In pregnant women it can lead to gestational hypertension, low birth weight, and pre-term deliveries, as well as affect a fetus’s neurological development. And once a baby is born, if a breastfeeding mother is drinking Flint tap water Planned Parenthood is advising her to “pump and dump” her breastmilk because the lead can be absorbed, particularly if she tests as having 40 micrograms of lead in her blood or higher. Even formula, though, can be complicated, as many are mixed with water. Mixing it with Flint tap water could harm an infant.
As the crisis continues to unfold — residents are still being tested for lead exposure, and the effects might not show up for years — Planned Parenthood will continue to focus on educating patients. But years of political attacks and austerity have gutted the resources it has at its disposal. Conservatives’ fixation on its abortion services has turned the organization into a political football. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who led the charge in the Senate to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood’s funding, launched his campaign’s water distribution efforts at Flint’s crisis pregnancy centers, which seek to divert women from Planned Parenthood with misleading or outright false information.
Michigan funding for pregnancy prevention — some of which goes to Planned Parenthood — has dropped from more than $7 million in 2001 to just a bit over $600,000 as of 2012, with the most dramatic cut in 2009 when it was reduced by more than 75 percent. The cuts came as Planned Parenthood has been specifically targeted by Michigan lawmakers: last year, the state House passed a bill banning the organization from receiving state funding, even though it doesn’t allocate any dollars to Planned Parenthood as it is.
“We’re seeing the effects of [austerity measures] in a lot of different places,” Tunde Olaniran, outreach manager, said. “In Flint, there was a drastic cut and we’re trying to slowly rebuild.”
Community organizations have worked to push back against the cuts and restore funding for a number of health needs, but it’s been difficult. “We’ve definitely fought and worked with organizations to make sure state and county health services stay open in places that are chronically underserved,” he said. “It can be an uphill battle to keep those services solid for folks that many don’t have as many means to travel even 15 minutes.”
Meanwhile, residents have already been dealing with a number of issues even before the water crisis hit. Olaniran works with teen groups, and they’re worried about safe schools, violence, and the dearth of jobs in the city. “People aren’t just facing one issue at a time,” he said.
As early as April 2015, Planned Parenthood staff in Flint began hearing about concerns over the chemicals in the water, and attention became intensely focused on the issue, particularly around potential lead exposure, at the end of the summer. The information came from “our own work in the community and hearing parents and mothers…talking about this water, look at this color,” said Desiree Cooper, director of communications. “That was coming to us not from the government or from the health department at first, but from people who were not trusting their water source.”
“It’s not like we woke up one day and were the first to lead the charge,” she added. “The community was leading the charge and we joined in early.”
In October, the clinic began to realize there wasn’t widespread awareness of the issue. So it started handing out water filters to patients who came through the doors and held a drive to collect and hand out bottled water in November, far ahead of the state of emergency first declared in December. “We were asking [patients], ‘Do you have Flint city water?'” Boston said of their early efforts. If they responded yes, “We would say, ‘Do you have a filter?’ and if they said no we would hand out the filters and instruct them.” Given that the center sees about 3,700 patients in a year, they reach a fair number of people.
“People who walk in the door — they’re people, so we wanted to address something that was a huge issue,” Olaniran said. “We’re trying to make sure we care about the entire lives of people who come into our doors.”