How do you restore trust to a community where trust has imploded, where faith has been breached? Do you tell them a statement they have heard many times before, that their water is “safe to drink”? Would you stand before them, pour a glass, and drink it yourself? They have seen that charade, too. They have heard the lies, and at first, maybe they believed them.
What has changed?
In April of 2018, most of the United States was alarmed to hear of Flint, Michigan once again. We hadn’t exactly forgotten about the residents of this primarily African American, economically challenged city, but other crises had taken center stage. The hotly contested Presidential election of 2016 had dominated the news, and it seemed we reverberated from one media event to the next, with barely time for breath in between. Yes, we thought of Flint, but only when another indictment hit the news.
We never expected to hear that the water crisis might be “fixed”. So, when the state of Michigan declared that the water crisis was over, and that government supplied bottled water was ending, according to tests performed by Governor Rick Snyder1, Flint’s residents were not only skeptical, but dismayed. They had been told the water was safe before, as their children broke out in rashes, and 12 people died from a Legionnaires’ outbreak related to the switch of water pipes from Lake Huron water to the Flint river. Flint residents had been lied to at almost every opportunity, starting with a change to save money in 2014, and even later, when a local Pediatrician began to detect high levels of lead among pediatric patients in her practice.
“Flint residents have had a long journey that started with betrayal by all levels of government”, stated Marc Edwards, a scientist and Virginia Tech professor who was among the first to confirm the fear.2 Now, during the fourth anniversary of the water crisis, many expect the residents of Flint to be “fine” with an explanation that the lead in the water has dropped below the 15 parts per billion that is considered safe to drink. During the height of the water crisis, lead was measured at one of the resident’s houses at 397 parts per billion units. Although the lead has now dropped, as part of a $450 million Federal and State restoration package, Pediatricians state that there is NO safe level of lead for children. Lead at any level is considered neurotoxic. Exposure can lead to lasting functional damage.
Residents also refute that all the “promised” work to restore Flint has not been completed. Homes are older, and many of the pipe connections need to be replaced. Demographics confirm what they would tell us, as Flint’s population has waned from its heyday in 1960. The current population of ~99,000 has a poverty rate of 41.9%, a number that is much higher than the National average of 14%. The median household income is ~$31,509, which means the average household is not able to afford bottled water to meet drinking and cooking needs. Nestle, a business interested in extending a helping hand, has continued to offer a supply of bottled water to residents of Flint, but at the current rate of supply, the amount will only equal approximately one bottle/per household/per week.
If questioned, what would nurses want the citizens of Flint, Michigan to know that concerned us most about their needs?
We would want Flint citizens to know that we have not forgotten what you have been through. We remember watching on television as those in charge of your community held a murky, cloudy glass of water up to the media and declared it safe to drink. We listened as those in power tried to derail a Pediatrician as she acted as a whistleblower. Those in authority challenged the authenticity of her findings. We empathized with the feelings of powerlessness and fear that radiated through your community as residents sickened and died. We applauded your courage as you demanded and ultimately received, appropriate action.
More than anything, we now understand your trepidation. Facts will tell us that water in the United States should not, I repeat should not make us sick, but our infrastructure is aging, and the odds tell us unfortunately, it could happen again.3
In fact, it might cost us $105 billion to make sure it doesn’t. But this time, thanks to the citizens of Flint, Michigan, who weren’t afraid to step up and be courageous, we’ll be watching. On your fourth anniversary, we surely haven’t forgotten you.
- Michigan Declares Flint Water Safe, Ends Free Bottled Water, Delk, J., April 2018, The Hill.
- Officials Say Flint’s Water Is Safe. Residents Say it’s Not. Scientists Say It’s Complicated., Baptiste, N., April 2018, Mother Jones, 2018.
- Water Shouldn’t Make Americans Sick-It Will Cost $105 Billion To Ensure It Doesn’t, Irvin, Wm., July 2018, The Hill