Flint, Mich., made headlines this year after it was discovered that residents had been drinking lead-laced water for a year and a half. A switch to the
Flint River as the city’s water source introduced corrosive chemicals to the area’s aging pipes when regulators failed to properly treat the water,
allowing lead to flow into residents’ homes. In some cases, the water was so toxic it could be classified as hazardous waste.
Nine city and state employees were indicted on charges of covering up or falsifying reports warning of an impending lead crisis, while the EPA admitted no
“We have laws to protect our most vulnerable,” says Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech engineer largely responsible for exposing Flint’s dangerously high lead
levels. “Those laws were blatantly disregarded.”
But this isn’t the first lead-in-the-water crisis. Flint bears unsettling parallels to the 2004 lead problems in Washington, D.C., also exposed by Edwards,
and which likely affected even more children. If we failed to learn from prior mistakes, can we learn this time?
“Unlike any other disaster like a flood or a hurricane, this is something that . . . impacts a child’s entire life-course trajectory,” says Flint
pediatrician and Michigan State University professor Mona Hanna-Attisha. Her research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, assessed lead
levels in nearly 1,500 of the city’s 10,000 children under the age of 5, half before and half after the contamination. She found that twice as many
children tested positive for elevated levels of lead after the switch to Flint River water.