The lead pollution crisis in Flint, Michigan has escalated, and President Obama has declared a state of emergency, releasing $5 million (£3.5 million) to assist people whose water supplies, and health, have been compromised. The declaration will see Federal Emergency Management Agency workers join the National Guard who are already distributing bottled water and filters to residents whose tap water is unsafe.
Exposure to lead is toxic at any age, but for thousands of children, the lead they consumed could lead to permanent brain damage and behavioral problems, leaving the community paying the price of minor cost savings for decades.
The birthplace of General Motors, Flint boomed with the automobile industry, but sunk into depression as factories closed. The global financial crisis hit the already suffering city hard. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to take over responsibilities previously handled by the mayor and councilors.
In April 2014, trying to save money, emergency manager Darnell Earley switched the Flint water supply from that of Detroit to drawing water from the Flint River. Almost immediately complaints started from residents that their tap water stank, was discolored, and induced rashes and headaches. State officials repeatedly dismissed concerns.
It was only after extensive investigations, led by Virginia Tech Professor Mark Edwards, that it was confirmed that the tap water in Flint residents' homes was contaminated with lead. Edwards had previously achieved fame for demonstrating that some Washington DC water supplies were similarly contaminated.
Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders called for Snyder to resign. "The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water," he said, reported The Guardian. "He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned."
The lead came not from the Flint River itself, but from piping in houses and the municipal water supply. The Detroit water did not mobilize this lead, but impurities in the Flint River water corroded the pipes, producing a toxic brew.
Tests revealed evidence of other toxic chemicals, but missed the lead, as they were conducted at the source, not the tap.
While the city's water source has been switched back to Detroit's, the nightmare is far from over. The corroded pipes continue to spew lead-polluted water that is dangerous to shower in, let alone drink. Governments and philanthropists are paying for bottled water to be distributed, but it is unclear how long this will last.
Mild lead poisoning can be treated, but where the dosage is too high, or the treatment too late, numerous effects, including permanent neural damage, occur. Exposure to lead early in life is associated with impaired learning capacity and poor impulse control. There is provocative evidence linking many country's rising crime rates in the 1960s and '70s with widespread lead exposure in children born twenty years earlier. Mass testing events are being held to find out how many children are affected.
Lead contamination may not have been the only consequence of the decision to use the Flint River as a water source. Between June 2014 and November 2015, 87 cases of Legionnaires' Disease, an often fatal illness caused by waterborne bacteria, were recorded in the county. A connection to the water supply has yet to be confirmed.
Governor Snyder has requested that Flint be declared a disaster area, potentially making extra federal funds available. This has been refused so far, as such declarations are reserved for natural disasters. Newly elected mayor Karen Weaver has described evidence of a lead poisoning epidemic in Flint's children as a “manmade disaster.”