Why Flint's Water Crisis Is So Incredibly Bad

An entire generation could suffer.
Jim Young / Reuters

An unknown number of children in Flint, Michigan, were exposed to dangerous amounts of lead in their drinking water because of a cheapskate decision to switch the city's water source in 2014.

Lead poisoning is less prominent as a public health concern than it used to be thanks to a decades-long effort to reduce lead exposure in children, especially from paint and gasoline. But lead poisoning itself is no less serious, because once a small child is poisoned, they can't be cured.

"We've been so aggressive about this because of what it can do to the whole life course trajectory of a child," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician, told "So That Happened," the HuffPost Politics podcast.

"Because [lead is] a neurotoxin, it affects your brain, it affects your development, it drops your IQ," Hanna-Attisha said. "It also causes problems with behavior. Increases the incidence or likelihood of violent offenses, aggressive behavior."

Indeed, researchers have shown a correlation between environmental lead levels and crime rates over the years.

When Flint switched its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River last year as a way to save $5 million, the government failed to adjust for the corrosiveness of the new water. In August, Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor from Virginia Tech, led a team that conducted its own sampling of water from Flint homes. Their investigation showed the water contained dangerous amounts of lead.

"In late August, we were hearing reports from a Virginia Tech team of elevated levels of lead in the water," Hanna-Attisha said. "We rightly freaked out, and that's when we decided to do our research."

Only after Hanna-Attisha reported elevated blood lead levels in Flint kids did the local government declare an emergency and tell people to stop drinking the water. Not that you needed a lab to know something was wrong with it.

"Right when the water switch happened, people complained about this water," Hanna-Attisha said. "It smelled gross, it looked gross."

Even Flint residents who may not have suffered acute lead poisoning, who aren't filing lawsuits against the city and state governments, have been burdened by the bad water.

"We have to buy bottled water to cook with, brush our teeth, drink," Flint resident Brion Morris, 31, told HuffPost. "And then we have two dogs, so, to keep my dogs from getting sick, I give them bottled water, too."

Morris' fiancee, Deshia Thompson, lamented that they can't avoid bathing with the water.

"We haven't been sick, but the water bothers my skin. It makes me itch whenever I come out the shower," Thompson, 38, said in an interview. Rashes and hair loss have been a common complaint among Flint residents.

In October, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) -- who had appointed the emergency managers that oversaw the switch -- signed legislation switching Flint back to Detroit's system. But it could take half a year for the lead levels to decline, and Morris said the water coming out of his taps is still nasty. Flint mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency on Tuesday.

"It shouldn't have took this long for them to took responsibility and to let people know that this is serious," Morris said. "That's what we elect office to do, is to inform us of things that we need to know, and to help us to get those things rectified. If they can't do that, they shouldn't be in office."

As for the kids confirmed to have had high levels of lead in their blood, Dr. Hanna-Attisha said the repercussions will be felt over a lifetime.

"In seven years, when a kid gets diagnosed with ADHD, that mom is going to have that guilt -- was this because of the lead? Was this kid always going to have ADHD? We will never be able to pinpoint exactly what the lead caused."

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