Detroit activists want a state of emergency declared over water shutoffs

One study says water shutoffs have hurt the public health of residents — and some are demanding action.

People stand outside Detroit City Hall, protesting thousands of residential water-service shutoffs by Detroit’s water department, during a rally in Detroit, Thursday, July 24, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo
People stand outside Detroit City Hall, protesting thousands of residential water-service shutoffs by Detroit’s water department, during a rally in Detroit, Thursday, July 24, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo

Activists are calling for officials to declare a state of emergency in Detroit following the release of a study connecting water shutoffs throughout the city to an uptick in illnesses.

Community organizers in Detroit brought experts together on Wednesday to discuss the research on a panel, while asserting that city health officials have not done enough to address the problem.

“Water-related diseases are now occurring in Detroit as the result of water shutoffs,” said Dr. Wendy Johnson, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington, according to Detroit News. “Access to clean and safe water is a basic human right that is essential from a public health standpoint to prevent infectious diseases. We have run out of time and solutions must be immediate.”

In a two-page abstract released in April by the People’s Water Board Coalition, researchers from Henry Ford’s Global Health Initiative (GHI) inspected the correlation between Detroit’s ongoing shutoffs and the health problems experienced by patients at the city’s Henry Ford Hospital. Analyzing patients living on blocks where water shutoffs occurred between January 2015 and February 2016, researchers noted a relationship forming — one that disproportionately impacted the city’s most vulnerable members.


“After accounting for vulnerability, the effect of living on a block that has been affected by shutoffs results in increased likelihood that patients will be diagnosed with water-associated illness,” researchers concluded. “Moreover, the data shows that patients diagnosed with water-associated illnesses are more likely to come from blocks affected by shutoffs than from blocks not affected by shutoffs, even when controlling for socioeconomic status.”

Skin and soft tissue diseases are among those being traced back to the water shutoffs. According to the study, patients with those ailments were 1.48 times more likely to live on blocks where shutoffs had occurred.

Despite the findings, a spokesperson for Henry Ford Health System cautioned that the study was limited in scope, and said further research was needed before drawing concrete conclusions.

“GHI found ONLY a preliminary association between water shutoffs and illness in people who happened to live on a block that experienced a shutoff — in other words, we can’t definitively conclude anything from this study,” Brenda Craig wrote. “Additional studies with multiple factors and controls would be necessary. At this point, we remain open to talking with city and other officials about appropriate next steps.”

But many activists in the area argue the initial research is enough to confirm what they’ve already feared — that Detroit is evading responsibility for a major health crisis.


“It’s now become an endemic problem in the city and everyone turns their back on it,” said Peter Hammer, director of Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, who moderated Wednesday’s panel. “We’ve had to struggle to find people locally who are willing to talk about the health implications.”

Detroit’s history with water shutoffs stretches back years. In a city struggling with both a high poverty rate and significant unemployment, many residents find themselves unable to cover basic costs. This forces them to prioritize — meaning that water bills sometimes go unpaid.

“Detroit has an over 40 percent poverty rate. Every month, tens of thousands of Detroiters make very hard decisions about how to budget out very limited resources,” Hammer said. “Are they going to devote those resources to food? Are they going to use those resources to pay the rent?”

While residents have argued that access to water is a human right, the law hasn’t been on their side — despite efforts going as high as the United Nations. Making matters worse, the city kicked off a fresh round of shutoffs, targeting upwards of 18,000 people in April.

Still, city officials insist residents have other options when it comes to dealing with shutoffs.

“We encourage members of the community to help get others who may not be aware of our assistance programs into one of our customer service centers immediately so their water service can be restored,” Gary Brown, director of Detroit’s water department, said.


But that approach doesn’t work for everyone, Johnson said on Wednesday, noting that physical illnesses aren’t the only thing Detroit’s residents are grappling with. Mental health ramifications, she argued, are also something to be considered.

“How can I get a job if I can’t clean my clothes, take a shower or eat? How can I go to school?” Johnson asked.

While Detroit residents grapple with shutoffs, water controversies more generally have dogged Michigan in recent years. In 2014, insufficient water treatment exposed residents in the city of Flint to high levels of lead through their drinking water. By 2016, a state of emergency was declared, leaving residents to rely on bottled and filtered water — something they’ve been advised to keep doing until 2020, when the city’s lead pipes will be fully replaced.