[Words by Joy Dakers (she/her)]
[Content Warning: Death or dying, discussions of race, pregnancy, blood]
Flint, Michigan 2013 – city officials cloaked in grey suits and an assortment of patterned ties raise glasses of water in the air as they cheer in celebration. The city’s five-decade practice of piping water from Detroit has ended. Instead, a cheaper resource is to take its place, the uncharted depths of the Flint River. Yet, this celebration is a toast to a more sinister and unanticipated future; the birth of a public health crisis that would go on to endanger the lives of every resident from new-borns to the retired.
The 78-mile long Flint River weaves intricately through the southwest and flows directly into the heart of the city. For years, the river brewed silently as it transformed into a toxic elixir of oil, cyanide, and hexavalent chromium. This was at hand to a history of industrial booms; waste from sewage plants and lumber mills mixed with agricultural runoff, to collect in the waterway. Inevitably, this pollution came with its consequences and bacteria levels in the river continued to rise. In one documented incident a resident reported “hundreds of dead fish floating down the river past her property”, the suspected cause being Copper cyanide, a toxin which causes asphyxiation.
Only when Flint River became the city’s water supply in 2014 did the real issues come to light. In the days following the switch, thousands of residents lodged complaints of foul-smelling and tasting water running from their taps. They paraded bottles of discoloured water in protest; solutions of brown, copper, and even subtle green. The river is naturally high in chloride, meaning iron pipes in the water distribution system had corroded. This coupled with Flint’s shockingly inadequate treatment process, resulted in elevated levels of a heavy metal neurotoxin, lead, flowing into dog bowls and down shower drains of over 100,000 homeowners.
Lead worked into their bloodstreams silently, bringing major health risks in its stride, potential kidney dysfunction, headaches, and nervous system damage. However, officials maintained that the water was safe. Children drank from school fountains and new-borns sipped bottles of toxic formula. Residents continued brushing their teeth, washing their food, and cooking with the poisonous water. The population of Flint hosted protests, petitions, public meetings, and social media campaigns in an attempt to attract the attention of both the public and the officials. It seemed no amount of activism and awareness would work as the crisis continued to rampage its way through the city.
Both systematic racism and class discrimination were prevailing factors in facilitating Flint’s water crisis. In accordance with the U.S census, black residents account for 57% of Flint’s population, with 40% of residents living under the poverty line. A report published by The Michigan Civil Rights Commission details how the government has been failing Flint’s black residents for decades. The people of Flint also requested that their water prices be changed as they were among the highest in the country at that point. Sceptical of the government’s laissez-faire approach, many residents resorted to buying bottled water. The response of the city’s mayor, Dayne Walling, was an embodiment of the daily prejudice the people of Flint face. She retorted “It’s a quality, safe product…I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”
Despite the water being switched back to a safer source in 2015, the Flint water crisis is still ongoing. On a biological level, the long-term health implications of the toxins remain unknown. Financially, state, and federal funds for repairs and services have already totalled $500 billion. To put this into perspective, if the state had not cut corners with the water system, anti-corrosion chemicals would have cost $150 a day, a fraction of what they are now paying out. Even with Michigan offering $600 million in compensation and the state funding grants, little has changed. The Trump administration has proposed a bill to set a new ‘trigger’ level for lead in water, but critics claim this will not help the issue. Instead, it will give water systems greater leeway when replacing dangerous water lines.
It is clear that despite the struggle and activism of the people of Flint, residents are left to live with these detrimental effects. What is more, due to the limits of poverty and racial discrimination, their cries for help have sadly faded into the background of global news.