The water crisis in Flint, Michigan: This is public health

mitten stickerWe take so many things for granted in the U.S., including having safe water for drinking and bathing. When officials state repeatedly that water is safe, most citizens believe them. However, residents of Flint, Mich., were betrayed by officials at every level—local, state and federal. It’s a story that’s happened many times before. People suspect something is wrong, but they are ignored, vilified or told there is no problem. Fortunately, in an otherwise awful situation, there are some bright spots—courageous citizens who persisted in speaking out, a physician who connected the dots to diagnose the disaster, and water specialists from Virginia Tech who found evidence of lead in water samples from Flint.

Setting off alarms
From excellent coverage by The New York Times: Flint’s public health problem stemmed from a failure to properly treat water from the Flint River, which resulted in pipe corrosion and elevated levels of lead. The crisis is at best a tale of neglect and incompetence. At worst, critics say, it is criminal conduct that imperiled the public’s well-being. Already state and federal agencies, including the F.B.I., have opened investigations.
   But as government officials were ignoring and ridiculing residents’ concerns about the safety of their tap water, a small circle of people was setting off alarms. Among them was the team from Virginia Tech.
   The team began looking into Flint’s water after its professor, Marc Edwards, spoke with LeeAnne Walters, a resident whose tap water contained alarming amounts of lead. Dr. Edwards, who years earlier had helped expose lead contamination in Washington, D.C., had his students send testing kits to homes in Flint to find out if the problem was widespread.

It will take millions and millions of dollars to fix Flint’s water system and years of health care (and more millions) to treat children exposed to lead, an exposure for which there is no cure. The city’s residents are reeling from the fact that an arrogant error caused their water—an essential ingredient for life—to be hazardous. It’s a sad tale, and it is critical that all of us in public health understand that water is a public health right. Despite the bureaucracies in which our health systems exist, a fundamental public health principle is that we ensure safety. In Flint, that did not happen, and once again, socially and economically disadvantaged people will have suffered the most.

The Flint experience has demonstrated once again the value a university’s faculty members and students can deliver by working in partnership with communities. One Flint resident, quoted in The New York Times, said  that the scientists “became the only people that citizens here trust, and it’s still that way.”

That’s the kind of value universities can deliver, and I’m proud of the Virginia Tech team.



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