New Orleans The stories coming out of Flint, Michigan are a scandal. Political indifference and economic decline coupled with the general unwillingness of our collective will to finance and repair infrastructure has produced the specter of an entire populations reduced to the level of undeveloped countries without potable water to drink. Worse, they are being poisoned by lead with likely permanent impact.
I live and work with a self-described “lead head,” as the small band of activists, researchers, and, sadly, families coping with these kinds of disasters describe themselves humorously. In August 2013 in fact, I interviewed Beth Butler, President of the Lead Safe America Foundation on Wade’s World so it was easy to get a deeper understanding of what is happening here. In fact Tamara Rubin, the energetic and evangelical executive director of the Lead Safe America is heading soon to Flint to offer several hundred free lead tests to children currently not eligible for testing for lead problems in Flint.
Talking to Butler, it seems that the only children actually being tested in Flint now are children five years old and younger. In Louisiana, where Butler lives, there is a state requirement for universal testing of all children five and under already, although pediatricians routinely just don’t bother even though it is reimbursable by Medicaid as well. Lead Safe and even some pediatricians argue that Medicaid reimbursements should be held up until there is full compliance. Not so in Michigan obviously. Admittedly, the percentages of damage are the highest in that demographic, but as Butler passionately points out, “it damages everybody who is contaminated by the way!” Lead Safe argues that everyone now needs to be tested, especially girls and women who might later transfer lead poisoning in the womb.
Butler and Lead Safe warn that even the simple finger-prick test for lead only is examining a 30-day window of lead impact, and not whether lead is already bonded into an individual’s bone structure. In Flint, especially other tests need to be made available in order to determine whether or not the lead invasion has breached even more bodies.
What can be done? Some people are being given water filters in Flint. The gold standard is triple-osmosis filters and that’s good with a caveat. Just like the infrastructure, such filters will also have to be maintained and changed, and they would be needed in all homes and all businesses. Butler, who has changed the filter in her home’s system, asks rhetorically, “How many are going to change those filters?”
If you have lead inside you now, and at some level we all do no matter where we live as the residue of lead paint and leaded gasoline continues, you have to live and eat differently with lots of calcium and iron and vitamin C to promote absorption. More seriously nutritionists and doctors attuned to this issue need to monitor the community in recovery and triage the more serious cases for assistance. As a veteran community organizer, Butler argues that without building strong community organizations that can constantly make the demands that are needed and force accountability, this is also not going to get better in Flint or the rest of America.
And, if you think this is just something isolated in the deindustrialized rust belt of America, take a deep breath in some cleaner air, because darned if overnight construction in the Longworth building of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, didn’t bring down ten cafeteria workers who became sick from dust residues of lead paint removal, temporarily closing down the cafeteria, a favorite of Congressional members. God know what shape the construction workers, likely contract, immigrant laborers, are in and given the impact of lead on brain functioning even in adults, who knows what factor it may play in the curious craziness of Congress in these times.
Seriously though, lead has to be taken much more seriously!