“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan. “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme. To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a longtime industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks. Now, the city is enveloped in a public-health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.
The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive. In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable. As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a 10th of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control, the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”
President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint. But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public-health crisis. There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland; Herculaneum, Missouri; Sebring, Ohio; and even the nation’s capital, Washington, DC—and that’s just to begin a list. State reports suggest, for instance, that “18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint. “Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood. The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined. From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them. Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.