Do you enjoy a warm cup of coffee or a bowl of hot soup on these cold winter days? How many times a day do you use water to clean your dishes, brush your teeth or take a shower? I am conscious of water usage right now because we have cut back so severely after four years of drought. That is why I am so disturbed about the situation in Flint, Michigan.
If you don’t know Flint, it is “a hard-luck, hardscrabble, post-industrial wasteland, a shrinking town of 100,000 people with a poverty rate of 41% and per capita income of less than $15,000. It doesn’t have a grocery store.”
What it does have is lead in its water. In 1962 Michael Harrington published The Other America about poverty in the United States. There was so much damaging information here that many citizens were shocked and embarrassed. We had just left the Golden Era of the 1950s: affluence, prosperity and opportunity, a reward after the depression and World War II.
However, under that gilt veneer there was real poverty, as much as 25%. This blog is not, however, about poverty, it is about lead and its impact on the physical and mental development of children. I don’t remember if Harrington mentioned lead in the water. But I do remember the expose’ about the lead in paint. Soon there were pictures in the paper of children who, because they were starving, peeled the paint off the walls in order to have something to eat. (In the South they also ate the red clay soil in hunger.) The result is that most paint has no lead in it today. (God only knows what else it has in it.) How many generations of poor children grew up with mental, physical and behavioral problems that were not their fault or the fault of their parents?
Apparently the water with lead problem is not the fault of the Flint children or their parents, either. The leadership of Michigan and of Flint explain the problem many ways, but who is/is not responsible is an issue that needs to be discussed. Lead has been in the water of children since April of 2014. How much damage has been done to their brains and their bodies by now? We know there are elevated levels of lead in their blood.
The issue that needs more than discussion is what help will there be for children who suffer “shortened attention spans, antisocial behavior, hypertension and damage to their reproductive organs.” Because they are poor, their parents will be blamed for not providing a healthy environment regardless of what environment they actually do provide. Who will pay for their tutoring in school? Who will be responsible for their behavior in classrooms? Who will take on medical care that may be based on the lead in their systems?
This is not about Flint alone. Human beings are amazing and they can make almost anything they want to. But we jump in using miraculous new products before we know if they are dangerous or not. We fall behind in keeping up our infrastructure (like water pipes). We allow Congress to refuse to budget the money for regulations and regulators. (The peanut butter scare a couple of years ago came because there were too few regulators to check the areas where the peanut butter was made.) Flint is like the canary in the cage. It is a warning to all of us to pay attention to our own lives but also to the lives of those less fortunate than we are.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We have to be more than vocal about problems; we have to act. We have to vote for people who will raise the quality of living for the poor – or at least give them healthy water. The future of our children and grand children depends upon diligence in solving the problems of those in need. The poor don’t just fade away. The actions of their children and grand children have repercussions in the world outside their neighborhoods. Remember this the next time you have a glass of water.
For more information about “The slow-rolling disaster in Flint” by Leonard Pitts, please go here.