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Flint, Michigan and the big picture

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On Jan. 16, 2016, President Barack Obama declared the city of Flint, Michigan to be in a state of emergency due to unsafe levels of lead and other bacteria in the tap water. About a year after the declaration, on Jan. 25, 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) announced that the lead levels have finally dropped to a level below the federal limit, reports CNN.

Although this is good news for the citizens of Flint, who have been dealing with unsafe tap water ever since the city switched from its previous water supplier to the Flint River nearly three years ago, the actions that eventually lead to the “all-clear” came far too late to expect no consequences.

Flint’s main water source had been switched from its previous supplier, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD), to water sourced from the Flint River to save money while a new pipeline was being built in April of 2014, according The New York Times.

After other complications with the safety of the water, the first official mention of lead came from the Environmental Protection Agency in February of 2015, reported CNN. The Environmental Protection Agency notified the MDEQ that dangerous levels of lead in the water had been found in the home of a mother and her four children. The mother reached out to the EPA and said that she had concerns about dark sediment in her tap water that might have been making her children sick. The EPA’s initial test found the lead level in the home was 104 parts per billion. The EPA’s limit for safe amounts of lead is 15 parts per billion.

The EPA’s website says, “lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.” Possible effects of increased lead levels in children could lead to behavioral and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. According to Suburban Stats for 2016, in Flint, 40,472 occupied homes had at least one person under the age of 18. This means that 40,472 households in Flint have children that were exposed to increased levels of lead who could experience some or all of its effects.

In light of the EPA’s report about lead levels in the home, the next month, seven out of eight Flint City Council members voted to stop using water from the Flint River and reconnect with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, according to a CNN timeline of the Flint Water Crisis. If this reconnection had been made, perhaps the citizens of Flint would have consumed less lead, and the subsequent effects wouldn’t have been so bad. The vote was overruled by a state-appointed emergency manager who called the reconnection “incomprehensible” because it would dramatically increase costs.

The emergency manager chose economics over the health and safety of a city with a population of nearly 100,000 people. It can be argued that the city was in deficit, which is why the water supplier switched from DWSD to the Flint River, but in a matter of emergency, an appeal can be made to either the president or secretary of Health and Human Services to be declared federally in a state of emergency. As a result, emergency funding would be received, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Officials from the city continued to deny the danger of the water, going as far as to drink a glass of tap water on a local television report to show the citizens of Flint, as well as the growing media surrounding the issue, that the water is safe. It wasn’t until Dec. 14, 2015, a year and a half after the switch, that Flint finally declared a state of emergency.

The conflict caused by the Flint Water Crisis is not over. According to the Flint Water Class Action webpage and Scientific American, on Feb. 1, 2017, the residents of Flint sued the EPA for $722 million for failing to warn them about the dangers of the water and to take action to ensure that state and local authorities were handling the situation.

Although the conflict is still not resolved, the media coverage of it has been. The Google Trends site shows that online searches for Flint, Michigan peaked from Jan. 17 through Jan. 23, 2016, around the time President Obama declared the state of emergency, only to taper back just slightly above normal by May of 2016. Google Trends also show that, beginning in March, searches containing the keywords “Democrat” and “Republican” surged to the highest in the last three years.

Around the time that the Flint Water Crisis was gaining media popularity, the political race was also beginning. With the intense elections in 2016, it is reasonable to say that the nationwide media coverage of Flint was taken over by political media coverage, leaving Flint to be forgotten or pushed to back-page news. The lack of coverage and nationwide interest could have slowed the process of restoring Flint’s water, because the main issue was not under the watchful and criticizing eye of the mainstream media.

The immediate threat of unclean water may have finally passed for the citizens of Flint, Michigan, but the lasting effects of this crisis may well be felt decades into the future. The theme of placing economics and money as higher priority than the city’s health and well-being is repeated multiple times throughout the mess.

Maybe some good can be drawn from this situation. It can serve as a lesson to all people with power and authority to prioritize the people, not profit, or else you could potentially find yourself at the middle of a controversy. Eventually, most controversies become examples of how not to act.

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The news site of UNC Wilmington
Flint, Michigan and the big picture