--> Flint, Michigan: The Poisonous System Behind the Water Crisis

Flint, Michigan: The Poisonous System Behind the Water Crisis

January 18, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Well, a few months after the switch, we had already noticed rashes on my kids’ arms, their backs, my face. And they were different, because you couldn’t put any kind of lotion or cream on it without it burning. It felt like straight-out chemical burns. And every once in a while, our water would turn bright blue or yellow, and we had no idea why. They kept telling us that the water was fine...

—Melissa Mays, Flint resident, water-safety activist
(Democracy Now!, December 17, 2015)

Some of the more than 150 Flint, Michigan residents at a January 14 protest in Lansing against the government's role in the huge water crisis.
Flint, MI, residents at a January 14 protest in Lansing, MI. More than 150 people demanded answers and called for the Michigan governor to resign following the government's role in the huge water crisis. (AP photo)

For over 18 months, the State of Michigan knowingly poisoned the people living in Flint, Michigan, with drinking water contaminated with lead, a toxin that causes permanent and irreversible damage to the nervous systems of children. And until very recently, it has been covering it up, doctoring tests, slandering critics, and lying to people, telling them everything was alright.

Finally, on January 14, 2016, after many months of denials, in the face of angry protest by residents and of doctors and scientists who amassed damning evidence of this mass poisoning, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder could no longer ignore this crisis. It had become widely exposed that those who run this system were not only to blame for poisoning people, but had essentially done nothing to address the problem even after it became known. Snyder wrote to President Obama asking him to declare a federal disaster and to provide almost $100 million needed to provide clean drinking water and filters, and to replace the pipes that are leaching lead into the water. (On January 16, Obama declared a federal emergency, authorizing FEMA aid efforts and pledging only $5 million in aid. The Federal Government declined to declare this a "major disaster," which would provide more aid for a longer time.)


For most of the 20th century, Flint was a booming center of the auto industry that was once a pillar of U.S. capitalism. Hundreds of thousands of people moved there from farms and sharecroppers’ plots, from Appalachia and the South and other places, to work in the many factories. In particular, Black people fleeing Jim Crow in the South and being driven from the land went to Flint and other industrial cities in the North.

Year in and year out their labor produced billions of dollars in profits for the auto giants and the system as a whole. But when global political and technological changes opened up opportunities to exploit desperately poor people in the Third World, most of the Flint operations were shut down. General Motors once employed 80,000 people there; today it employs 5,000. Unemployment skyrocketed, the population dropped by half, infrastructure crumbled, the city tax base deteriorated.

You can’t talk about the situation in Flint without talking about the fact that more than half of those who live in this city of 99,000 are African-Americans who face systematic discrimination and oppression. Forty-one percent of people in Flint live below the poverty line and over 60 percent receive food stamps, and these conditions are even more extreme among Black people. When something like this water crisis hits, Black people―already living in the most impoverished conditions―are the hardest hit.

The same system that squeezed so much wealth out of the people of Flint now has no use for them. The state even took over the city government in order to impose “cost-cutting measures” ―in the logic of this system, why should the state be “burdened” with maintaining a decent life for people once it can no longer exploit them?

As part of this, in April 2014, the city switched from the Detroit water system to temporarily using the Flint River as the water source. People in Flint were alarmed―the Flint River was an industrial dump for decades and notoriously polluted. But the state went ahead with its plan.

Almost immediately, water started coming out of taps filthy and tasting foul. People were getting rashes, their hair was falling out, children were losing weight, developing anemia. Residents showed up en masse at city council meetings, bringing jugs of the vile water, but were assured it was “safe.” The then-mayor even pulled the stunt of drinking a cup of it on TV, as if the fact that he didn’t die on the spot somehow “proved” that the water was safe.

In October 2014, GM told the city that one of its plants in Flint would stop using the water because it was corroding their engine parts! In spite of this, the authorities, including the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), insisted the water, unsafe for steel, was fine for human beings.

In January 2015, the University of Michigan at Flint reported they had found high levels of lead in some of their drinking fountains. In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a memo raising “major concern” about lead levels in the water―but the EPA did not send this to MDEQ or make it public, preferring to have “behind the scenes” discussions.

Then in September 2015, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a local pediatrician, led a team of people to do testing of children and found that the number of children with dangerously high lead levels in their blood had doubled in the past year.

Lead is a toxin that attacks every organ and system in the human body, particularly the nervous system. It is especially harmful to fetuses and to children, causing premature and low-weight births, irritability, weight loss, lethargy, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems, among other symptoms. Any amount of lead in the body is harmful. And Dr. Hanna-Attisha pointed out that although the damage from lead is permanent, it only stays in the blood for about 30 days, and so many more children who had been poisoned already would test “clean” once they had stopped drinking Flint water. She was mocked and denounced by the authorities.

In September 2015, scientists from Virginia Tech released findings from tests in hundreds of Flint homes showing elevated lead levels. The Virginia Tech team determined that Flint water was 19 times as corrosive as Detroit water. And the biggest problem was that this corrosive water damaged the service pipes that brought water to people’s homes, many of which were made of or soldered with lead, causing it to leach into the water. So while the water left Flint’s water treatment plant lead-free, it came out of people’s taps with dangerously high levels.

The MDEQ responded by saying that these scientists specialized in “looking for high lead problems” across the country. “They pull that rabbit out of the hat everywhere they go. Nobody should be surprised when the rabbit comes out of the hat, even if they can’t figure out how it’s done.” (Michigan Live, “Flint Water Crisis: Key Figures,” November 11, 2015) But this was no “magic trick”―both scientific data and the experience of thousands of people proved that Flint water was not only unsafe to drink, but even to bathe or to wash dishes or clothes―the only thing it was safe for was flushing toilets!

Finally in October 2015―over a year after residents first raised the alarm―the state acknowledged that there might be some problem, and told people not to drink Flint water unless it was filtered or tested. But even then, THE STATE TOOK ONLY PALTRY MEASURES TO PROVIDE PEOPLE WITH FILTERS OR BOTTLED WATER.

So people were forced to either scrape up the money to buy bottled water or filters, or to drink and give their children poison. Some residents spent $500 a month on water, often diverting cash from food, medicine, and other necessities, but thousands simply could not afford to do that. Ordinary people, activists, and churches launched crowdsourcing campaigns to fund free water distribution, while the government did almost nothing!

Dr. Hanna-Attisha fears the Flint children who tested with elevated levels will suffer lifelong consequences. “If you were to put something in a population to keep them down for generation and generations to come, it would be lead. It’s a well-known, potent neurotoxin. There’s tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it’s been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child.”

The Detroit Free Press characterized officials from the MDEQ as saying that the kind of testing that would have revealed the lead contamination “isn’t required under federal drinking-water rules and has never been done in Michigan. What’s more,” MDEQ argued, “the Flint River water, treated in the city’s plant, was already approved as a backup supply in case of interrupted service from Detroit.” In other words, faced with massive evidence that people were being poisoned, the authorities focused on proving that this contamination was legal under this system, and not on the fact that it was profoundly damaging thousands of lives.

Only in this past week has the government begun to take significant steps to alleviate the emergency, and these are still far from sufficient. For instance, Governor Snyder called out the National Guard, saying this would enable them to distribute water filters to the 30,000 households in Flint, at a rate of only 500 per day. The lack of safe drinking water in a major city demands a major mobilization of social resources to rescue children from grave danger, but the powers continue to act like there is really no emergency here.

And to add insult to criminality—some people in Flint are actually receiving water cut-off notices for not paying the bill for their poisonous water—which means that even when drinkable water does start flowing again, many in Flint will have to pay huge back bills before they can access it.

What kind of system is unable to provide something as basic as safe drinking water to its own population? What can you say about a system, possessing wealth undreamed of by empires of old, which poisons children as a “cost-cutting” measure? And what do you do with a system that cannot shut up about how great and powerful it is, but that lies and urges people to continue drinking this poison in order to try and preserve people’s belief in their legitimacy? This is a system that needs to be gotten rid of through revolution, nothing less.


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