Life After Lead

President Obama is visiting Flint tomorrow.

President Obama Is Visiting Flint Tomorrow

In response to a letter from 8-year-old Flint resident Mari Copeny, known as “Little Miss Flint”, President Obama announced that he will visit Flint, Michigan tomorrow to convey his support to residents affected by the city’s water crisis. The President’s visit refocuses the national spotlight on Flint, which made national headlines earlier this year after it was revealed that the Michigan state government failed to provide safe and clean drinking water to the residents of Flint for more than a year.

The crisis began in April 2014, when government officials, under pressure to cut the budget, chose to switch the city’s water source to the polluted Flint River, without adequately preventing corrosive chemicals from entering the water flow. Not long after the switch, many residents began complaining about the dirty and smelly tap water and experiencing health side effects such as hair loss and rashes – but the local government waited nearly a year before admitting to the public that there was a problem.

While Flint officials turned a blind eye, a serious public health crisis unfolded as thousands of mostly black and low-income residents and children were poisoned by elevated levels of lead in the water, which can produce a host of long term health effects including high blood pressure, memory loss, and neurological disorders. Research suggests that young children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure, as it affects children’s growth, behavior, and intelligence over time. It is estimated that between 6,000- 12,000 Flint kids have been exposed to lead, and for children, the effects of lead poisoning can be especially damaging: children with lead poisoning are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system than those not exposed to lead. And although the availability of early intervention and education services like high-quality childcare and pre-k could help determine how well these children fare down the line, these programs are currently scarce in Flint.

The water crisis in Flint – a city in which 56 percent of the population is African American and more the 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line – also serves as stark reminder of how the failures of government accountability, infrastructure investment, and environmental quality can disproportionately impact the most vulnerable communities in an area. In addition to Flint, there are cities across the country struggling with lead poisoning. For example, fourteen percent of children in Cleveland have elevated lead levels, mainly due to the persistence of lead paint in old buildings.

A recent CAP column and report illustrate how the crisis provides just one window into widespread environmental injustices faced by communities of color across the country: in fact, these communities tend to face higher risk of exposure to lead-poisoning, water contamination, and air pollution and are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than whiter, more affluent communities.

As reports of the crisis began to surface earlier this year and it became clear that the state of Michigan itself was primarily responsible for the crisis, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint and directed millions in federal aid to Flint, and soon after the Michigan House of Representatives approved millions more to the city. But to really solve this problem and prevent future ones, Congress, which has failed to secure any aid package for Flint, must work past gridlock to pass legislation to increase funding for water infrastructure, improve testing and monitoring, and reform regulatory oversight to makes sure that no community suffers from the environmental injustices that Flint has.

BOTTOM LINE: President Obama’s trip to Flint reminds us of the troubles facing Flint and similar cities across the country. Whether it’s lead in the water, more extreme weather, or air pollution, Flint is just a particularly egregious example of the environmental injustices faced by communities of color across America. There are concrete solutions that Congress can enact to prevent problems like the ones faced by Flint, but lawmakers first have to be willing to make them.

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