In Flint, Echoes of DC Lead Crisis

By Dalia Deak

The public health crisis in Flint, MI is a long way from resolved. The short-term public health effects have been staggering, a state of emergency has been declared in the city, uncertainty looms in the long-term, and the city, state, and federal government have a serious trust issue on their hands.

Last April, the city of Flint changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in an effort to reduce mounting financial pressure on the city. However, the new water source corroded the city’s old pipes, leaching lead into the water. Adding insult to injury,
when residents complained about the taste, smell, and appearance, or attributed rashes and other medical conditions to the water source, city officials told residents that they were continually monitoring the levels to ensure that they were safe (a claim which has been called into question). Despite concern over the quality of the water dating back almost immediately after the switch, a state of emergency was declared when parents started bringing children in to the pediatrician for concerns about delayed development. When researchers at Hurley Medical Center looked into the issue, they found that the proportion of infants and children with above-average lead levels close to doubled after the switch. Residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the Governor, the state, the city, and 13 public officials in November for damages from the high levels of lead in the water, claiming that their 14th amendment right was violated when the city took away their safe drinking water and replaced it with a cheaper, more dangerous alternative.

While the situation in Flint should shock the public conscience, it unfortunately is a story we have heard before. Flint’s water crisis shares a number of similarities to the Washington, DC lead crisis, though levels in Flint were not as high nor was the exposure as long. In DC, the lead concentration began to rise in 2001 after a new chemical was added to the water treatment. This change made the water more corrosive on lead pipes, a problem that persisted for three years before the public was made aware. Significantly increased levels of lead in infants and toddlers and an increase in the number of miscarriages are just some of the issues that arose as a result. The Centers for Disease Control came under fire during this crisis and class-action lawsuits were filed against the District of Columbia Water and Sewage Authority.

The situations in Flint and DC are pressing and demand national attention. As we still struggle to understand the true extent of the damage, we must support residents coping with the effects of high levels of lead, particularly as many of those with the most prolonged exposed were vulnerable populations with young children. Additionally, science-based safeguards and improved public health and legal tools must be put in place to ensure that residents of our cities have access to clean water. As for me here, I will continue to follow this developing story in Flint and plan to post more in the future as the scientific, public health, and legal implications of this case develop.

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About daliadeak

Dalia Deak is a second year student in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She received her BS in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Virginia, where she focused primarily on computer science in biomedical engineering and issues at the intersection of technology, health policy, and public health. After receiving her undergraduate education, Dalia joined the Brookings Institution as a Research Assistant where she worked on their medical device evidence and innovation portfolio. While at Brookings, Dalia co-authored a report for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the implementation of a unique device identification system that would support postmarket surveillance and enhance patient safety. Dalia’s current research interests lie at the intersection of medical device and drug policy and public health law.