Poison Water in Flint, Michigan: Conscious, Callous Policy

February 1, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Protest at the Flint City Hall, April 25, 2015.
Protest at Flint City Hall, April 25, 2015. (Photo: Sam Owens/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

For almost 21 months the State of Michigan has been poisoning the people of Flint, Michigan with water contaminated with lead—a toxin that causes permanent and irreversible damage to the nervous systems of children. Almost from the beginning, officials KNEW the water was toxic. But they covered it up, lied to people, doctored tests and attacked those trying to sound the alarm. And the people of Flint are STILL being poisoned today and as the scandal unfolds new revelations shine a sharper light on how the poisoning of the people in this majority Black and overwhelmingly poor city was conscious and callous government policy.

In the face of all kinds of outrage, government officials are trying to defuse the situation by “being transparent.” One of the emails recently released by Governor Rick Snyder referred to a resident whose son had elevated levels of lead in his blood. In January 2015 a state nurse told her, “It is just a few IQ points. ... It is not the end of the world.” So, did the governor or any other official express outrage at the utter contempt and callous attitude this showed toward the victims being poisoned? To the parents whose children now faced permanent brain damage? NO. In fact this attitude of “who cares about these people” has characterized the whole way government officials have treated this crisis all along, up to today.

For many decades Flint was a center of the auto industry, once a pillar of U.S. capitalism. Hundreds of thousands of people came here to work in the factories—including Black people, driven from their land in the South and fleeing the horror of Jim Crow. Year in and year out their labor produced billions of dollars in profits for the auto companies and the system as a whole. But the workings of capitalism, the drive for higher profits, led to these factories closing and moving in order to exploit desperately poor people in the Third World. General Motors once employed 80,000 people in Flint. Today it employs 5,000. The same system that squeezed so much wealth out of the people of Flint now has no use for them. Flint is now a city where 41 percent of the people live below the poverty line and over 60 percent receive food stamps. And the majority Black population is subjected to even more extreme conditions of poverty.

A Conscious Policy of Poisoning the People of Flint

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician who led a team that exposed how children were being poisoned and then courageously went up against officials who mocked and attacked her, said: “If you were to put something in a population to keep them down for a generation and generations to come, it would be lead.”

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.

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)

From very early on, the government knew there were dangerous levels of toxins in the water, poisoning people, but they covered it up. The lead poisoning of people in Flint began in April 2014, when the city switched from the Detroit water system to temporarily using the notoriously polluted Flint River as the water source. Filthy, foul tasting water poured into the houses in Flint and people started getting rashes, their hair fell out, children lost weight and developed anemia. [see “Flint, Michigan: The Poisonous System Behind the Water Crisis” at http://revcom.us/a/422/flint-michigan-the-poisonous-system-behind-the-water-crisis-en.html]

In October 2014, GM told the city it would stop using the water in one of its plants because it was corroding their engine parts. So authorities knew the water was highly dangerous but continued to insist the water was safe for human beings! January 2015, a University of Michigan report found high levels of lead in drinking fountains. In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a memo raising “major concern” about lead levels in the water.

In September 2015, tests from Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s team found that the number of children with dangerously high lead levels in their blood had doubled in the past year. There was mounting evidence that people in Flint were being poisoned every single day. But the government continued to cover up and deny this—and mocked and attacked people demanding something be done.

More Damning Evidence of Conscious Crimes

Only recently, in mid January, in the face of protests and unable to deny the truth any longer, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder asked Obama to declare the water crisis in Flint a federal disaster. And now, the powers that be are trying to do damage control. Federal and State monies are being pledged to provide bottled water and filters (which in many cases will not actually get rid of the toxins), and nurses to assist the children who have been permanently injured. But even as these very minimal measures are being taken—more evidence keeps coming out about the criminal and conscious nature of how the government has been poisoning the people of Flint.

For instance, as early as February of 2015, water at the home of one Flint resident showed 104 parts per billion (ppb) of lead—seven times the 15 ppb level that the EPA determines to be acceptable. (In reality, most experts agree that there is no “safe level” of lead in human drinking water.) In March they tested the house again and the level had gone up almost 400 percent, to 397 ppb. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) ordered more testing, but designed the testing process to conceal the rising lead levels. How did they do that?

The reason lead was showing up in tap water, and the reason levels were rising from month to month, is because the lead was coming from the pipes themselves. Flint River water has some lead, but the main problem is that the water is highly corrosive (19 times as corrosive as Lake Huron water). Many pipes, especially older ones, are made from, and/or soldered with, lead. Those pipes were lined so the lead would not get in the water, but the corrosive river water eats away the lining and leaches the lead into the tap water. That is why the levels rise—the more the pipes corrode, the more lead they release.

When the state tested the water they did two things. First, they told people to run the water for a while before collecting samples—this flushes much of the free lead out of the water, providing a lower lead reading on the sample. The other thing they did was that they would test the homes of people that did not have lead pipes at all (and who therefore had zero lead readings) and average those results together with people who did have lead pipes. This would be like a football team reporting on the rate of concussions, but including the members of the marching band in the study—obviously that will bring down the average rate of concussions dramatically.

Flint, Mich: Drawing blood to test for lead poisoning
Having blood drawn to test for lead, a toxin that attacks every organ and system in the human body, particularly the nervous system. Any amount of lead in the body is harmful. (Photo: Conor Ralph/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

The State used similarly dishonest methods to test for lead levels in children. Even a few weeks ago they claimed that “only” 200 children had high lead levels. But as Dr. Hanna-Attisha pointed out, they had actually tested only a small number of children to begin with, and they ignored and covered up the fact that while lead only stays in the blood stream—and therefore only shows up on tests—for a short period of time, the damage it does is permanent.

Using this unscientific method they came up with levels that fell below the EPA’s “acceptable” level of 15 ppb. But even with their tests, it was notable that lead levels doubled—from 6 ppb to almost 12 ppb—in just the first few months of using Flint River water.

Then starting in January of 2015, the state began providing bottled water to the Michigan State Office Building in Flint, explicitly because they knew that Flint city water was not drinkable. Yet at the same time, they were issuing reassurances to the public that the water was “safe to drink” (Flint city press release, April 2014). In March 2015, the city hired an outside consultant, Veolia, which declared that the city’s water met state and federal standard, without even reporting on what the lead levels were.

In another example of their shameless contempt for the lives of the masses, when—after covering it up for nearly 18 months—they did begin to warn people, they did so only in English. Flint has a substantial community of people who speak only Spanish, and Flint has no Spanish-language media, so most of these people were not informed that their water was dangerous.

As one man in Flint put it, “Somebody needs to go to jail for this, man. They’re poisoning an entire community. A generation of kids will never recover from this. And it’s all just to save a few dollars. They played a game of chess with our lives and we lost.”

In October the State agreed to switch Flint back to using water from Lake Huron, but the damage was already done. Damage to the almost 100,000 people of Flint, especially the thousands of children who potentially now have irreversible brain damage. And damage to the water system itself—even with the clean water from Lake Huron, the now-corroded pipes of Flint continue to leach lead into the tap water. In late December further testing of Flint tap water showed lead levels on average of 150 ppb—10 times the EPA acceptable level—and levels in some homes of 4,000 ppb—250 times the “safe” level.

Genocidal Dimension

For almost two years the authorities KNEW what was going on and tried to cover it up. What does this say about the attitude and the conscious policies of the government institutions? Why after all these years does systematic oppression of Black people not only continue, but now intensify as the situation grows more polarized and for increasing millions of people more desperate? This is conscious policy. They treated people as less than human, worse than dogs.

This system has a genocidal program for Black people in this country which includes mass incarceration, police murder and brutality. And this is what’s behind conscious murderous policies like how the powers-that-be refused to do anything about the poisoning of the people in Flint—a majority Black city—even though they knew about it.

From the beginning and on up to today, the water crisis in Flint has revealed a system that is criminal and illegitimate at its core; that has no regard for the lives of people; that is carrying out a genocidal program against Black people in this country—and that is causing tremendous suffering all over the globe. This is a toxic, criminal system that needs to be gotten rid of through revolution, nothing less.



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