By Marlene Cimons
The poisoning of Flint is a tragedy without end. Five years after learning their water supply was laced with lead, the residents of this Michigan town 66 miles northwest of Detroit still are reeling. And they may be doing so for a long time.
“We were and remain in deep trauma… grasping for hope,” said Bob Brown, a community activist who chairs WOW Outreach, a community-based organization dedicated to eliminating inter-person violence in Flint. “We are very resilient in Flint, but the trauma of what was done to us will take a long time to get over.”
Community activists like Brown are trying to create new hope for residents. He is among those in the Flint community working with Laura Schmit Olabisi, an associate professor of community sustainability and environmental science and policy at Michigan State University, to help residents cope with the ongoing health effects of lead poisoning. Her focus is on nutrition, trying to find ways to improve their access to healthy food. When people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables — and fail to consume nutrients like calcium and iron — the impact of heavy metals like lead in the body is exacerbated.
Olabisi described, for example, how Brown tearfully told of unknowingly serving lead-tainted Kool-Aid to his young son and his son’s friends. Another woman described how she miscarried midway through her pregnancy, certain that lead was to blame.
“It made me angry,” Olabisi said of the anguish she heard during the church-based listening session.
Lead exposure is extremely dangerous, especially for young children. It can stunt mental and physical growth, including lowering intelligence, and — among other things — can cause kidney and central nervous system damage. It affects every system in the body. It can be found in bones and in the blood. Lead can sometimes be removed, but the damage it causes can’t be reversed. Moreover, it can take decades for lead to leave the body, if it ever leaves at all.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that at least four million American households with children are currently being exposed to unacceptably high lead levels, including half a million children younger than five. The nutrients in healthy food, especially calcium and iron, can prevent the body from absorbing it.
“We want to keep it from interacting with brain chemistry, and the way you do that is through proper nutrition, so [the lead] stays locked away in the bones and doesn’t reach the brain,” Olabisi said. “If it’s going to be a lifelong thing, you have to manage it, and nutrition helps you manage it.”