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

On 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





About and

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.
Lisa 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.