How the Flint water crisis has further exposed health disparities

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

A water crisis brewing in Flint, Mich., for nearly two years exposed children and others to lead from contaminated water. It also exposed health disparities from infrastructure. Glass of Water via photopin (license)

A water crisis brewing in Flint, Mich., for nearly two years exposed children and others to lead from contaminated water. It also exposed health disparities from infrastructure. Glass of Water via photopin (license)

The ongoing water quality crisis in Flint, Mich., highlights many public health issues, but shines its brightest light on health disparities, too.

Residents of the struggling community, about an hour northwest of Detroit, began complaining about problems with their tap water almost as soon as the city – under the control of a state manager – began pumping water from Flint River to fill the gap after switching providers in 2013.

It’s something that would have never happened in one of Detroit’s wealthier, leafy suburbs, according to Nancy Kaffer, a political columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

In an interview on MSNBC, Kaffer noted that the crisis underscores the great risks facing poorer communities with aging infrastructure and few means of upgrading it. It also highlights how these circumstances can sometimes lead to devastating health impacts.

“People who live in Bloomfield Hills or Birmingham don’t have these problems because these are wealthy communities where folks can afford to replace their plumbing, where the cities have plenty of tax revenue to upgrade infrastructure, and where – when problems start to emerge – they can certainly call their state legislators and command their respect and attention,” she said during the Jan. 20 interview.

“The response would have been different, but it doesn’t happen in an affluent community to begin with because there’s so much disparity in investment in infrastructure in this country based on where people live and how wealthy the community is,” she added. “We’ve definitely shortchanged our infrastructure for decades here, and now we’re kind of dealing with some of these consequences.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, speaking at a press conference while in Washington, D.C., to attend a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, noted the impact of the crisis on children’s health and the frustrating uncertainty her residents face over a basic need – access to clean water.

“This is something that nobody should have to deal with,” Weaver told reporters. “Everybody should have clean water. And it’s just a travesty.”

Asked whether the lead contamination and ensuing crisis would have happened in a different community, she said, “We know Flint is predominantly African American, but it’s also a social (issue). It’s a class issue as well and we’ve got high unemployment.”

Flint’s median income is $24,834 and nearly 42 percent live below the nation’s povertylevvel, according to the U.S. Census, compared with a median of $48,411 overall for the state, where about 17 percent live in poverty. More than half of Flint’s residents are black.

Weaver, who met with President Barack Obama while in town, welcomed the national attention to the crisis and what she called some good first steps to resolve it. But she also expressed frustration that action has taken so long.

“This is something that in April will have gone on for two years now that we haven’t had clean, affordable water in the city of Flint,” she said. “It didn’t take us a scientist to tell us brown water is not good.”

The disparity to some echoes that seen in the handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, something Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder conceded in a National Journal interview this week ahead of his annual state-of-the-state address to lawmakers. (The headline on one Free Press editorial echoes that sentiment.)

“There’s a great deal of similarity to the Katrina response,” the Free Press’ Kaffer told MSNBC.

While Snyder has pledged action, and the Obama administration responded with an emergency declaration for federal resources, Flint residents still can’t drink the water as they wait for chemicals to build back up and coat pipes after officials switched the city back to Detroit water.

Kaffer cited poor and delayed communication from officials about the problem, noting her news outlet’s reporters found people who still were not aware that they are not supposed to drink the water. Despite water filters and efforts to distribute bottled water, it is still a hardship for too many people to bear, she said.

“Do you know how much water you use every day to drink, to cook, to make formula for your infant if you have one? Think about how much water you would require to get through the day and having to have all that be bottled,” she told MSNBC. “Even with filters, some folks in Flint have said to me they’re never going to feel safe drinking tap water ever again, which is pretty horrible thing to think about in America, the richest country in the world.”

Well-known environmental activist Erin Brockovich said the city’s water crisis is not isolated. “Flint is the tip of the iceberg here,” she said in a separate interview on MSNBC. “We’re seeing this type of crisis in many Flint, Michigans, across the United States.”

Flint’s Weaver said her city’s crisis should serve as a wake-up call for other localities. (And something surely journalists in other urban areas no doubt are looking into as well.)

“I hope other cities from around the country take note about what has happened in Flint,” she said. “Start monitoring what’s going on with your water, the infrastructure and don’t let this happen where you live.”

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