The Current

Flint's water crisis reflects history linking lead levels to race and poverty

For more than a year, Flint, Michigan's water has been unfit to drink. Many say it points to a continuing neglect of a poor, and largely black community, in the former industrial heart of America. We discuss the water woes in Flint and its correlation to race in the U.S.
More than 150 people tried to flood the lobby of the Romney Building in protest, Jan. 14, 2016, where Gov. Rick Snyder's office resides, asking for his resignation and arrest in relation to Flint's water crisis. (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

For more than a year,  the drinking water has been poisoned by dangerously high levels of lead in the city of Flint, Michigan — about 100 kilometres from Detroit.

In some homes, the water flowing from the kitchen faucet is so rancid and poisoned to be considered toxic waste. 

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder apologized and promised to do more for Flint residents.

And President Barack Obama has even declared a state of emergency. But for the people of Flint, it's too little too late. Residents feel this emergency could have easily been averted.

We've been screaming about our water being wrong for 20 months ... We are still being billed the highest rates for the lowest quality water and people are still getting sick.- Flint Resident
A person holds a sign as people protest the city's water quality, Feb. 14, 2015, in Flint, Mich. Residents have complained of the water's taste, smell and appearance and there are reports of rashes and other health concerns. (The Flint Journal, Sam Owens/AP)

The water crisis started in 2014, when — as a cost saving measure — the city changed its water supply, from the city of Detroit, to the Flint River. It was a disastrous decision.

Nayyirah Shariff, Flint Democracy Defense League task force member, says the fight for safe water in Flint stems from racialization. Fifty-six per cent of Flint residents are black and according to Shariff, the black population in the city have been treated like "throwaways" by the government.
Michigan National Guard members arrived in Flint, Jan. 13, 2016, to join door-to-door efforts to help distribute bottled water to residents coping with the city's crisis over lead-contaminated drinking water. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Nearly 40 per cent of Flint residents today live below the poverty line

Like so many other similar cities in the American mid-west, Flint was once a booming industrial hub but has fallen on difficult times. Nearly 40 per cent of Flint residents today live below the poverty line. And to David Rosner who has studied history of lead exposure in the U.S., the demographic makeup — sadly — comes as no surprise.     

Rosner is a professor of history and public health at Columbia University and has written extensively on the history of lead in the U.S. including the book, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children. He says Flint's water issues reflect part of a long U.S. tradition, exposing more African-Americans to lead.

Lead poisoning has been an all-too common problem, not just in Flint, but in cities across the U.S.

Here in Canada, different factors come into play, but lead exposure is still a concern. It is for Bruce Lanpheara professor of children's environmental health at Simon Fraser University, who says his concern includes the fact that there are limited studies on lead exposure in Canada. He feels we need to pay more attention to what could be a serious undocumented harm.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, Julian Uzielli, Kinsey Clarke and Marino Greco.