FLINT, Michigan — Though widespread outcry has only recently erupted over the people of Flint, Michigan, being poisoned by lead in the city’s tap water, activists and local medical experts had been sounding the alarm about the issue well before it became a national headline.
Lead poisoning leads to irreparable brain damage and may be linked to a recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease.
Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency earlier this month amid widespread demands for his resignation after it became apparent that the people of Flint have been drinking lead-contaminated water for two years.
Flint’s water crisis stretches back to April 2014, when Darnell Earley, the city’s state-appointed emergency manager, switched Flint’s water supply to the polluted and corrosive Flint River. In January 2015, the city warned 100,000 residents that their water may contain toxic levels of trihalomethanes, or THMs, a byproduct of chlorination that has been linked to cancer, kidney and liver failure, and birth defects.
Residents had been getting sick for months prior to that warning, according to an April 2015 report from Laura Gottesdiener. Writing for Al-Jazeera America, Gottesdiener relayed the experiences of one Flint family:
“[Ida] Nappier, known to most as Jackie, always had thick hair, which she wore long during her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and later shoulder-length and feathered, Farrah Fawcett–style, during her years raising children and grandchildren in Flint. But suddenly she was losing her hair — and she was far from the only one. …
At Nappier’s home, she and other family members continued to get sick, even though they heeded the series of boil-water advisories the city issued over the summer after E. coli and other bacteria were detected in the water system. … In December and early January, Nappier’s grandchildren started vomiting and having diarrhea, she said, and they complained that their skin was itchy after showering. One day she ran a bath, and the water was the color of tea. The whole family switched to using bottled water for drinking, cooking and sometimes even bathing.”
In March, Gottesdiener noted, when THM levels began to fall, city officials insisted the water was safe to drink. But residents kept getting sick, and activists kept pressuring city government to take their complaints seriously.
Medical officials soon joined in the outcry. One of them was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She told Democracy Now! on Jan. 15 that she noticed the growing reports of lead poisoning in August, and “when pediatricians hear about lead anywhere, we freak out. We know lead. Lead, as you said, is a known potent, irreversible neurotoxin.”
Children are routinely screened for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2, Hanna-Attisha said. “So we had the data. It was the easiest research project I have ever done.”
She found that levels of lead poisoning among children tested for lead poisoning had increased dramatically between 2013 and 2015, the year after the water supply started drawing from the Flint River. She immediately held a press conference, but told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:
“[T]hat evening, we were attacked. So I was called an ‘unfortunate researcher,’ that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie.”
City officials soon relented, and even invited Hanna-Attisha to stand with the governor at a press conference. Goodman noted that at that press conference Hanna-Attisha was seen shaking her head in disagreement with the city’s official figures on the number of victims of lead poisoning.
“[T]hey said that only 43 people since October had elevated lead levels. And it really minimizes this population-wide exposure. This is an entire population who was exposed to this neurotoxin. So when you say these small numbers, it just—once again, the population loses trust in government and in their ability to protect people.”
Watch “Flint Doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha on How She Fought Gov’t Denials to Expose Poisoning of City’s Kids” from Democracy Now!: