Lead Poisoning is Devastating Flint: It’s Time to Listen to the Women

36842073_830999c6eb_zOn Dec. 15, 2015, Flint, Michigan’s newly elected mayor, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency in the city as a result of a “manmade disaster.” On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) took action and declared the state of emergency in the county where Flint is located.

This all started in April 2014 when appointed officials decided to start drawing Flint’s water supply from the Flint River instead of from the Detroit water system. Treating the water from the Flint River for household use rendered it corrosive, and this caused the leaching of lead into the water supply in homes with old lead pipes. Even though city officials denied that the water was unsafe for months and months, those who came into contact with it daily knew something was wrong.

The citizens of the city of Flint, where the modern industrial union was born, are no strangers to depression, abandonment and poor services. Neither are they strangers to struggle. Local organizations like the ACLU, as well as church, community and grassroots groups began to organize to address what the citizens of Flint were experiencing on a day-to-day basis. Many of these activists are women who had not been politically active before, and many are mothers who are angry that government agencies and officials played politics with their children’s health.

Two of the activists, LeeAnne Walters—whose son was tested and showed elevated lead levels and lead poisoning—and Melissa Mays, Flint residents and mothers, started the group Water You Fighting For? They first noticed that their children were getting sick, and connected the skin rashes and other health effects to exposure to the contaminated water. They contacted officials, attended rallies and demonstrations, and made alliances with scientists who circumvented the regular officials and determined that the lead levels were dangerously high. They were angry and they were not going to stop until this was fixed.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mays, who spoke at a teach-in at Michigan State University before the state of emergency was called, did not need this official notification to know there was an emergency. She mobilized because she had “no trust or faith in our government.” She and her sons have shown elevated lead levels and multiple, permanent health problems directly attributable to the lead and other contaminants. Her hair fell out, she had rashes on her skin, she developed upper respiratory infections. Her bones hurt from the lead poisoning. She suffers seizures and tremors. One of her son’s teeth had holes in them, another suffered fractures and her youngest had a low white blood cell count.

She paid $480 a month for water, “not knowing that I was paying the highest price in the nation for water to poison my children.” If she stopped paying the bill, they would turn off her water and take her children away.

When she met Walters, she said, we “screamed at the top of our lungs.” She reported that the “emergency [city] manager told us we were stupid and we were liars. He was doing what was best for us.” When they complained to officials higher up in the state government, they were told they were ridiculous, they didn’t know what they were saying and that they were just stirring up problems.

It’s no coincidence that Mays has been in touch with environmental activists Lois Gibbs and Erin Brockovich. Like the mothers in Niagara Falls who Gibbs fought beside in the 1970s, Flint families have had their worst fears confirmed: That they have been poisoned and had their lives turned upside down. And like Gibbs and the women who protested at Love Canal, N.Y., Flint women were attacked and dismissed.

Unlike the families at Love Canal, who were plagued with illnesses with no clear causative agent, Mays and Flint residents can point to the numbers, the almost 400 parts per billion levels of lead found when some water supplies were tested. This is an element whose toxic effects are well known. This knowledge provides both relief at knowing the cause of their maladies, and anguish in seeing the direct effects and waiting for other health problems yet to come. These mothers know the future that they and their families face, one filled with illness and anger, but also a determination to hold the guilty parties responsible.

This very maternal concern not only brought these women into the political fray, it was also the reason why, finally, people paid attention to this story. Women’s political activism on behalf of the health and welfare of children has historical roots, such as Women Strike for Peace in the early 1960s, a group that objected to the open-air testing of nuclear weapons because it introduced Strontium 90 into the nation’s milk. This activism still resonates today in groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, formed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

The testing of the water proved that the women in Flint did know what they were talking about, even though Mays believed that the powers that be “didn’t expect the citizens of Flint, as downtrodden as they are, to actually stand up against the government and say no, no, no, this is wrong, we’re sick of this.” Hopefully these women, their children, and all of the citizens of Flint who have suffered and will suffer from this atrocity will receive the support and compensation they deserve and require. And we hope one of the lessons from this story will be to listen to the women.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Olly Clarke licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Lisa - preferredLisa Fine is a professor of history and the co-director of the Center for Gender in Global Context at Michigan State University. Her recent work is on the relationship between the working class and the natural world.




Amy Hay is an associate professor of medical history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She researches and publishes on citizen protests challenging chemical use and regulation policies and has published on Love Canal.


  1. We need to make very clear the political nature of this catastrophe.

    Beginning in 2011, Governor Snyder (R) appointed an “Emergency Manager (EMA)” to run Flint, totally overriding the elected Mayor and City Council. Seeking to cut city spending to the bone, it was the EMA who ordered the city to end its relationship with Detroit (for water) and instead switch to the far cheaper direct tap into the Flint River. It was all an austerity measure.
    Almost immediately, there were problems as the water was cloudy and smelled. But all complaints were ignored by the EMA and by state water quality staff. For literally two years, they were ignored.
    But what we now know is that the water was always so polluted, even major auto firms ceased using it because it corroded metal engine parts! We also know a pediatrician at Flint’s public hospital began testing both the water and children, documenting the high lead. For almost a year, every attempt she made to tell state officials was either ignored, or she was attacked and her work discounted! Of course, she’s since been proven correct, and had anyone listened far fewer children would have been far less poisoned than they were!
    We also know from leaked emails that at least some officials told the Governor and his senior staff what was happening, and that something needed to be done else it would be a major scandal. They too were ignored for months by Snyder, the Flint EMA, and other state officials working for Snyder…until the story went public! At that point, a senior Snyder staffer resigned, but thus far Snyder is pretty much pretending he knew nothing about what was happening, nor is he really taking any responsibility.

    One would think that an administration, a Governor, whose personally appointed controller for a city, who ordered the switch that poisoned hundreds, perhaps thousands, causing permanent damage to their brains, would be sufficient grounds to demand the removal of that Governor, especially given the evidence he knew about it months before actually doing anything about it. But Snyder is a Republican, in a GOP controlled state. It’s very unlikely he’ll suffer any consequences for the lifelong damage he’s done to hundreds of poor children in the name of “austerity.”

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