(George Curry Media) – “It’s all just poison now,” Annette Williams, a grandmother of three in Flint, Michigan, recently told a reporter from the British newspaper, The Guardian, while gazing at the Flint River, which she could see from her home on the city’s northeast side.
That’s the river whose water, flowing through the city’s aging, corroded pipes, has for the past two years subjected her family and apparently many of the 100,000 other residents of Flint to a toxic mix of lead and other dangerous chemicals.
The danger facing Flint’s residents is heartbreaking and extraordinary – a tale seemingly out of 18th century Europe, or scattered parts of today’s less-developed nations rather than the 21st century United States of America.
But it has happened here in America, in Flint. The lead and other toxins that leached from the city’s underground service pipes into the water flowing into an unknown number of homes represents a direct and potentially long-lasting threat to residents’ physical and emotional health. Skin rashes and hair loss are some obvious physical manifestations. But, even more alarmingly, the effect on children’s intellectual development – speech patterns, motor skills and capacity to learn – could either show itself immediately or lay dormant for years.
Not every child in Flint will develop these problems. But how many will and how many won’t are at present unknowable. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center and one of the first who warned of the dangers the state’s 2014 decision to use the polluted Flint River as the source of Flint’s water supply, said during the town hall forum held there last week hosted by MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow that every child in Flint will have to be monitored their entire childhood for signs lead is damaging their health.
The kind of effort that “requirement” alone – a close medical monitoring of each child in Flint for years to come – will necessitate suggests an additional way (the first being the apparent political mobilization of a large segment of Flint’s citizenry the Maddow forum made evident) the dynamics of the tragedy that’s occurred in Flint can be reversed.
Flint can have an extraordinary future – if the people of not just Flint, but America as a whole, compel the now deservedly disgraced administration of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the federal government to “flip the switch” on the governmental neglect that beleaguered city has suffered.
The response of numerous celebrities and private-sector companies in supplying millions and millions of bottles of water and other aid to Flint’s citizens and schools has helped the city and helped spread the word about the crisis.
Now, the federal and state of Michigan governments need, in concert with Flint’s citizens, to launch a comprehensive project to protect Flint’s adults and children from both the now-evident and the potential health effects of the state’s policy of deliberate neglect.
Some first steps have been taken.
They include the sacking or forced resignations of some of the state officials who, in carrying out Snyder’s policy of cost-cutting, directly “managed” the state’s regime of indifference to the health of Flint residents, and the Michigan state legislature’s unanimous approval of Snyder’s request for an immediate $28 million in emergency state funds for Flint.
In addition, the governor has asked the federal government to expand Medicaid to cover every Flint resident under the age of 21. And last week, he appointed a commission of outside observers that includes experts on children’s health, water quality and civil engineering projects to suggest what now needs to be done and monitor the multitude of city, state and federal actions that will be taken.
But, of course, the actual details of what’s to be done are still a multi-faceted open question.
For example, the state has said it’s now put corrosive-control chemicals into Flint’s water system that is preventing the contamination of the water. But should those ageing pipes be replaced altogether – a massive public works project that would take years and years to complete and cost an estimated $1.5 billion? Further, what will be the shape and the scope of the health-care project that should be created to monitor, reduce and repair the physical and mental damage Flint residents have suffered and will suffer? What is that likely to cost over time?
In fact, the possibilities here – of rebuilding part of a city’s infrastructure and of providing comprehensive health care to a large but very specific population – are enormously exciting.
But, just those broadly put questions indicate what happens in Flint from this point forward is not only a health care issue and an economic issue. It’s one that has already become a fiercely contested political issue, especially in this presidential election year.
So be it. Democrats and other Americans who care about governmental responsibility shouldn’t back down from pursuing still-murky questions about the Snyder administration’s actions that led to the humanitarian crisis in Flint. And they shouldn’t back down from demanding that Flint have all the money it needs to provide for the health care of the adults and children harmed by this man-made tragedy.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent. His new collection of columns is available at http://www.amazon.com.