Toxic History, Poisoned Water: The Story of Flint

Anna Clark

From the start, the people of Flint, Mich., knew something was wrong with the water coming out of their taps — it was brown and orange, visibly full of particles, frothy and foul-smelling. Their hair started falling out, and showers left their bodies burning with red welts. Their plants and pets began to die. On a hot day, children playing in the spray of a water hydrant were streaked with coffee-colored liquid.

In the spring of 2014, the city, as part of a cost-cutting plan devised under emergency management, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the notorious Flint River, once so polluted it was said to have caught fire. America’s infrastructure is old; corrosion control is federally mandated to prevent pipes from crumbling into the water, but none was instituted in this case.

That summer General Motors, based in the city, noticed that the new water seemed to be corroding engines. The company swiftly shifted to a new water supply. But the city strenuously argued that the water was safe for human consumption, even as residents protested and got sicker and sicker.

Two new books approach this disaster from different angles. “What the Eyes Don’t See,” by Mona Hanna-Attisha, is a stirring and personal account by the Flint pediatrician who first presented unequivocal proof that children were being poisoned. Her book reads like true crime, as the doctor transforms herself into a “renegade and detective.” “The Poisoned City,” by the journalist Anna Clark, is comparatively drier but a more comprehensive chronicle of the crisis — with an eye for the institutional corruption and indifference that enabled it.

The conclusion they arrive at, however, is the same. Both books make it clear that what’s happening in Flint is not an aberration or a parable. A history of austerity policies and a long legacy of racial apartheid allowed a government to poison its residents — the majority of them black and poor — and then lie, suppress evidence and attempt to smear and intimidate anyone, from scientists to specialists to citizens, who came forward to expose the scandal.

Credit...Philip Dattilo

“Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities,” Clark writes. “Another is segregation, secession, redlining and rebranding: This is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes.” To which Hanna-Attisha adds “greed, anti-intellectualism and even laissez-faire neoliberal capitalism. These are powerful forces most of us don’t notice, and don’t want to.”

Add to that the horrifying irony of a water crisis erupting in Flint, smack in the middle of the Great Lakes region, the largest source of freshwater in the world. “In a city with plenty of urgent matters competing for attention — poverty, vacancy, schools, crime, jobs — one thing Flint didn’t have to worry about” previously was the quality of its water, Clark writes.

There is considerable overlap in these books as they trace Flint’s rise and fall. The city once shone with promise, boasting the highest average income and lowest unemployment rate in the nation. But by the 1980s, its joblessness rate was the highest in the country. Deindustrialization and disinvestment hollowed out the city. Today, Navy SEALS train in Flint because it approximates what a place looks like after years of war.

“If you were going to put something in a population to keep people down for generations to come, it would be lead,” Hanna-Attisha writes. It is possibly the most studied neurotoxin. But Clark describes how it was embraced by America anyway, as a “key to prosperity,” added to brass fixtures and paint — “built into the infrastructure.” Children are especially vulnerable; their bodies absorb up to five times as much lead as adults, and it leads to aggression and antisocial behavior, learning difficulties, organ damage, seizures, coma, death. There is even an epigenetic impact — it changes a child’s DNA. “It’s really science-fiction comic-book stuff,” Hanna-Attisha writes. “Like the X-Men, except the victims aren’t getting superpowers. Their powers are being taken away.”

Credit...Mike Naddeo

For all her doggedness, Hanna-Attisha is a goofy, appealing, very human narrator — passionate about “Scandal” and prone to repeating the praise she has received. Hers is the book I’d recommend to those coming to the issue for the first time; the crisis becomes personalized through the stories of her patients and their parents, and through her horrified recollections of her initial passivity. For a year she tuned out reports of lead in the water — “a loop of white noise,” she calls it, until a friend impressed upon her the seriousness of the situation.

These books are not competitors; they are complements to each other. Clark’s book makes it clear that Hanna-Attisha’s involvement has not been without controversy. A hero narrative coalesced around her and the engineer and activist Marc Edwards, reinforcing a “dangerous dynamic of ‘saviors’ and ‘saved’ that disempowered the community all over again,” Clark writes. “What’s more, it was simply false; it didn’t sync with what actually happened,” and it minimized the roles of community organizers who first raised the alarm and who continue to deliver bottled water and mobilize. This is, oddly, an omission that Clark points out but does not really correct; community organizers are very much at the margins of her narrative, rarely mentioned and almost never named.

“What the Eyes Don’t See” and “The Poisoned City” are not just important books, they are useful — as history and as blueprint, for all those who believe, as Hanna-Attisha writes, that “the world shouldn’t be comprised of people in boxes, minding their own business. It should be full of people raising their voices” and “minding one another’s business.”

Opportunities to use these blueprints will never stop presenting themselves. This week, it was reported that between 2012 and 2016, 820 children living in New York’s housing projects were found to have lead poisoning. Not one of these cases was investigated.

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