With the news cycle in hyperdrive ever since the inauguration of President Donald Trump (and even before that), it feels as though most Americans have forgotten about one of the most horrifying examples of government malfeasance and environmental racism in recent memory: the Flint Water Crisis.
It was heartening to see the Michigan city get some attention as a result of Will and Jaden Smith’s eco-friendly water company, which has vowed to donate water to the beleaguered, majority-black city. But it reminded me that what happened in Flint, an hour north of my hometown of Detroit, has largely faded from the public eye. I have friends in Flint, many of whom are still wary of drinking the tap water, even with the free filters provided by the state. When the cameras and celebrities left, thousands of poor, now-poisoned Flint residents, including infants and children, remained. And we’ve all but abandoned them.
On April 25, 2014, Flint officials made the cost-cutting decision to switch the city’s main water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River. Initially an effort to save $5 million, the decision proved to be more costly than they thought. And shortly after the switch, residents started to complain about discoloration in the water, a taste of “urine” and an odd smell. Rashes and hair loss were also a common complaint.
The river water was dangerously corrosive to the city’s pipes, so much so that a General Motors plant stopped using it because it was eroding car parts. Over a year later, researchers found evidence of dangerously high levels of lead in the water, which finally prompted the city to take action.
While we won’t see the long-term health effects on a city filled with lead-poisoned individuals for another 10 or 20 years, some side-effects of the contaminated water have already occurred. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease caused by the water crisis has killed a dozen people. A study discovered a ”horrifyingly large″ increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages in Flint in recent years.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said in a report that officials whose decisions caused the crisis ― as well as those who reacted slowly to it ― may not have been racist, but that systemic racism was the real culprit. The report asked if the Flint water crisis would have been allowed to happen in affluent, largely white Michigan communities, such as Ann Arbor or Bloomfield Hills.
“We believe the answer is no, and that the vestiges of segregation and discrimination found in Flint made it a unique target,” the report concluded. “The lack of political clout left the residents with nowhere to turn, no way to have their voices heard.”
“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 pediatrician who sounded the alarm over Flint’s putrid water, told HuffPost in 2015. “Because [lead is] a neurotoxin, it affects your brain, it affects your development, it drops your IQ. It also causes problems with behavior. Increases the incidence or likelihood of violent offenses, aggressive behavior.”
Kids may face developmental issues as a result of the poisoning later in their lives. According to a study by the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, four percent of children have elevated lead levels in their blood since the water supply switch.
An ongoing debate about the plunging reading proficiency of Flint’s third graders has many wondering if the poisoned water is the cause. What’s undeniable, however, is that Flint children, who had no say in the matter, will ultimately suffer from both the short-term and long-term effects of prolonged lead exposure.
“We shouldn’t forget the horrors that have been thrust upon people in their own homes. ... We owe it to the city’s residents to keep talking about it.”
After learning about the water crisis and its many victims, celebrities and everyday people came together to provide aid for Flint’s citizens. People started GoFundMe accounts to raise money for relief. Rapper and Detroit native Big Sean along with Jimmy Fallon, Cher and others donated time, money and water, but those efforts eventually died down. While it is excellent that Will and Jaden Smith are reigniting the conversation surrounding the Midwestern city, it’s also a reminder that their effort is simply not enough.
It is not incumbent on celebrities and nonprofits to lead the charge to help Flint. Government on all levels — city, state, federal — is simply not doing enough to rectify the irreversible damage done. Even though some 6,000 contaminated pipes have been replaced and several Michigan officials were charged with crimes for the roles they played in the crisis, we shouldn’t forget the horrors that have been thrust upon these people in their own homes.
The hectic and often outrageous news cycle has desensitized us to such a degree that the poisoning of an American city in the 2000s is almost an afterthought. Just because it didn’t happen in New York, Washington or Hollywood doesn’t mean these citizens’ problems are less important. The city has fallen out of the headlines but don’t forget: Flint hasn’t had clean water for more than 1,400 days. We owe it to the city’s residents to keep talking about it. And the government owes it to them to continue to do something about it.
Philip Lewis is a front page editor at HuffPost.