“There are lots of villains in this story”: An Iraqi immigrant and pediatrician recounts the epidemiological sleuthing that uncovered the lead crisis in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan.
The story begins with people turning up sick. But more, longtime Michigander and physician Hanna-Attisha’s story begins in a political moment, when a tea party–dominated state legislature and a former business executive elected governor declared a state of fiscal emergency over the city of Flint. As she notes, Flint was not alone in having its democratically elected government replaced by a technocrat imposed from outside—and those that shared the distinction were far likelier to be areas where African-Americans lived, “effectively colonized by the state.” A budgetary shortcut was to change Flint’s source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, long used for dumping industrial waste. Bacteria was one thing, but high concentrations of lead quite another. Drinking Flint River water was “like drinking through a lead painted straw,” with resulting developmental delays and cognitive damage that will plague Flint for generations. Hanna-Attisha combined a background in environmental science and medicine to expose a multilayered conspiracy of crony capitalism involving the lead industry, which she likens to big tobacco in greed and damage, and allies in government and business. Along the way, she notes that medicine itself is not blameless, since older pediatricians in particular have assumed that the old problems of lead poisoning that plagued previous generations have gone away with regulatory changes. Not so, she writes, particularly if you are poor and a member of an ethnic minority. Making this story known proved a challenge, but the author and her allies were methodical in approaching professional journals, the press, and finally federal authorities with their evidence. In the end, writes Hanna-Attisha, this is “the story of a government poisoning its own citizens, and then lying about it”—and it demands greater justice than has been served.
An important contribution to the literature of environmental activism—and environmental racism.