Let's Not Forget That Flint's Children Are Still Suffering

by Elizabeth Broadbent
flint water
Geoff Robins / Getty Images

Since General Motors downsized their plant there, starting in the 1980s, Flint, Michigan, has been poor, with 41.2% of people in Flint now living below the poverty line. That’s $24,250 for a family of four, if you’re paying attention, which few people are. 56.6% of people in Flint are black, which helps with the invisibility factor. The median income is only a bare $24,862, compared to the rest of Michigan’s $49,576. Flint’s median rent is $721, which adds up to a yearly average rental cost of $8,652, more than one-third of the average Flint citizen’s income. Fully 25% of the housing units lie vacant, and more than 50% of people moved into their current address after 2010, showing a high rate of mobility — and possibly eviction. In 2010, the last year before free lunch and breakfast were instituted for all children, a full 81% of Flint kids qualified.

And it’s the kids who have suffered the most. In 2014, the city switched water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The river downstream of Flint has been of notoriously poor quality, according to the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources “Flint River Assessment,” was severely degraded during the 1970s, due to “the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances.” Cleanup of 134 sites around the watershed was ordered. However, the Department of Environmental Quality didn’t treat the water with an anti-corrosive agent, which federal law mandated. Without this agent, lead began to leech from pipes into the water supply of Flint.

According to the EPA, even low levels of lead have been linked to health problems in children. It’s been linked to “damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.” Lead can also cause “behavior and learning problems, low IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia.”

The March of Dimes tells women that lead contamination can cause miscarriage, premature birth along with all the risks for the child that entails, and low birthweight. Studies link it increasingly to “conduct disorder, delinquency, and criminal behaviors.” There are treatments for lead poisoning: They include “prevention of further lead exposure, decontamination, chelation, and supportive therapy.” There are no treatments known that can undo the damage already done by lead exposure though.

According to NBC News, the CDC has confirmed that lead levels in children shot up after the water switch; kids who drank water from the Flint River had a 50% higher chance of “dangerously elevated blood levels” of lead. The city made the dangerous water supply switch in 2014. Then, after waffling, lying, and refusing to hook up to the Detroit system because costs might rise, the city finally made the switch back in October of 2015. But it takes time to flush the pipes, and issues might continue. They have no idea how many children were harmed or how severely. But the CDC estimates approximately 99,000 people were affected by the water switch.

Since Flint has switched back to the Lake Huron water source, it’s tempting to turn our heads and call the problem solved. However, many, many children in Flint still suffer from the lingering effects of lead poisoning, and remember, any exposure to lead is lead poisoning, since there is no safe level for children. The government has expanded Medicaid, and they recommend regular appointments with a doctor for affected children, particularly to measure their growth. Healthy diets are important, as are, says the Department of Health and Human Services, things that stimulate their brains, like Head Start and summer reading programs. There is, remember, no cure for these children, only supportive services.

In the midst of all the political chaos in our country, it’s important we don’t forget the children in Flint, most of whom are not just lead-affected, but who are also living in poverty — 90% of all public school children, estimates the Kids in Need Foundation. They confirm that “the water crisis is still a huge problem for local families.” While the state has provided filters, evidence shows that up to 52% of the filters were working improperly. That means that Flint children are still being exposed to lead from the contaminated pipes in the city, which it will cost $55 million to replace.

Those who want to help kids in Flint can donate to any number of foundations, including the Kids in Need Foundation. The Flint Child and Development Fund uses money “for the longterm health and development of children exposed to lead.” Among other things, they provide access to infant and child behavioral health services, nutrition education, and early child education. The Mott Foundation “support[s] efforts to help [their] hometown of Flint solve problems, create opportunities, and build a vibrant future for the community and [our] residents.” You can also donate to the ACLU, which has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the citizens of Flint.

Whatever you do, it’s important to do something. The problems in Flint aren’t over. The water switch didn’t magically make these children healthy again. Flint’s children, and the entire community, still need help and support. It’s up to us, the federal government, and the state of Michigan to provide it.