“From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. freshwater but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan Emily Sioma,” she said.
Most Miss America contestants use the eight to 10 seconds they are given to introduce themselves with basic information such as their name, state and education. Sioma, a Grass Lake, Michigan, native and University of Michigan graduate, chatted with Cosmopolitan.com in an interview published Tuesday about why she chose to talk about the Flint water crisis.
“I just thought, ‘Emily, remember why you took this opportunity in the first place,’” Sioma said of her decision, which she said she made a few days before the pageant. “Activism is such a huge part of who I am; I just had this moment thinking, ‘How am I going to make this moment meaningful?’”
“If you don’t make the top 15, you don’t have an opportunity to use your voice [beyond the introduction]. So I knew I had, well, basically eight seconds on TV to make a statement and I wanted to use it for something more than for myself,” she added.
The Flint water crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2015 after Flint officials changed the city’s main water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River in order to cut costs. Dangerously high levels of lead were found in Flint’s water over a course of 18 months that discolored and poisoned the water.
Not only can lead exposure cause brain damage in young children and miscarriages in women, studies also show that low chlorine levels in the city’s water caused a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that infected about 90 people and killed 12. Researchers also documented an increase in lead in children in the area and a possible increase in fetal deaths.
The Michigan state government said it had “restored” Flint’s water supply in April, making it safe for residents to drink. Many clean-water advocates, however, said the announcement was premature.
Although Miss New York Nia Imani Franklin won the Miss America crown, Sioma told Cosmo she will continue to speak up about the water conditions in her home state.
“This is a conversation we need to be having. It’s a crisis going on all across the state of Michigan ― chemicals known to cause cancer and now lead to developmental disorders [are being found in our water],” she said.
She added that dangerous chemicals like those found in Flint have also been found in other Michigan cities including Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Alpena.
“The Detroit public school system has had to turn off its drinking water. Kids are going back to school and they don’t have water to drink because the lead and copper levels are way too high to be safe,” Sioma said. “It’s unfortunate that truth is so very hard to hear sometimes, but we have to be able to accept these truths and find solutions for our residents and citizens.”
Head over to Cosmopolitan to read Sioma’s full interview.