By Heather Haas
Recent news has got my head spinning. Reading the news about Flint, Michigan’s poisoned water is bringing up powerful emotions. My response to hearing that the people of Flint have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead from a source that most of us rely on, public potable water, is more than just cerebral.
I have a physical reaction. I feel it in my bones, a sick, slightly dizzying sensation. The city, facing declining tax revenues, was looking for ways to save some money. The water supply was a target of budget cuts, with the city deciding to switch from buying water from nearby Detroit, to pulling water from the Flint River. Corrosion control was not completed when the water supply was changed, leading to lead leaching from the old pipes of the city and its homes. This is the type of disaster that brought forth the modern environmental movement, and it reminds me of where we came from (remember DDT and Silent Spring?). How on Earth could this happen in this day and age? There are two things contemporary U.S. Citizens take for granted, but shouldn’t: clean water and clean air.
The news out of Flint reminds me of many battles in the history of the environmental movement, but most notably it reminds me of the tragic tale of Love Canal. I can talk for hours about the history of Love Canal (but I won’t, I promise). I’ve read book after book on the subject, written reports and given a presentation about the disaster, and I’ve interviewed one of the now grown children from Love Canal. I follow the work of Lois Gibbs, Love Canal housewife turned activist, and her Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Lastly, I’ve even watched the TV movie (which I highly recommend). Love Canal has fascinated me for ages, mostly because pollution was always one of my biggest environmental focuses (I was always less ‘save the whales’ and more ‘stop poisoning everything!’).
For those of you less familiar with the Love Canal disaster, I offer up a brief synopsis. Love Canal is a small community in Niagara Falls, NY that became the first SuperFund site in the United States. It is a chemical waste dump that was covered over and developed with an elementary school and homes. The story is about pollution, but it’s also about environmental justice. The people that bought the homes in Love Canal were generally young, working-class families that toiled in nearby factories (some even for the very company whose chemical waste they stood upon, Hooker Chemical). These were not people of means or higher education, and as such, their cries for justice were often disparaged or ignored. Lois Gibbs, who started the investigation into the neighborhood’s ills, was often portrayed as a hysterical housewife, in an attempt to brush off her concerns.
The site was leaching dioxins, which “are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition to kids getting sick, the community was experiencing an upswing in birth defects and miscarriage rates. The community rose up in a grass-roots manner, harnessed the media, and fought for justice. It was a long battle. In fact, it was such a long battle that the last of the lawsuits related to the original Love Canal fight were not settled until 2005!
But I digress. The reason that the Flint situation reminds me of Love Canal is because they are both situations where people are being poisoned in a place that should be safe, their own homes. The situation in Flint, Michigan reeks of environmental injustice. The city has been struggling with job losses and the flight of citizens to other areas. Those that remain include a high proportion of people that cannot afford to leave, for one reason or another. Accusations of who is to blame for this atrocity are being lobed like bombs, but the evidence is strong that city leaders knew about the crisis well before they declared a state of emergency, and warned residents about the danger the water flowing from their taps posed. Lead does not play nice with human physiology, and is especially dangerous for children, whose bodies and minds are still developing. Lead has even been correlated to a rise in violent crime during the time that it was used in gasoline, sending the toxin far and wide. Lead can lower your IQ, among a horror-filled list of ailments that it can cause (or worse, death). Much like companies have what is known as CSR, short for Corporate Social Responsibility, the City of Flint had a social responsibility to provide safe water to its citizens and to move quickly to avert the danger as soon as possible.
Imagine for a moment that you have no choice but to shower in leaded water. Or you had your kids or pets drink it. Or you run a business that uses water and all your product has been destroyed (reports are that GM had to switch off from Flint water over corrosion issues). Just imagine it. Water. It’s in the coffee you drank this morning. It was used in the manufacture of your toothpaste. That salad you ate was grown in a field that had to be watered. 50-75% of your body is made up of water. Water is everything to us. And for the people of Flint it is poison.
A recent article in The Atlantic gloomily points out that the situation in Flint might just become a common occurrence if we don’t fix our aging water infrastructure throughout the country. We are letting our great nation crumble under our feet. If you think the environmental movement is anathema to business interests, just wait until the water we rely on for everything is toxic. It is past time for us to lace our boots up, both as individual citizens, and as business leaders, and get to work making the United States a shining beacon of health and wealth once again. We have achieved the impossible many times before. If we have the will and knowhow to land on the moon and build nuclear bombs, then surely we have the skills to build a safe potable water system. It’s time for companies to innovate and for municipalities to invest in social responsibility as a serious endeavor. Clean water shouldn’t be taken for granted.