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Water. The stuff of life. It cleanses our bodies and it keeps them alive. Its warmth soothes our aching muscles at the end of a hard day and its coolness refreshes us as we labor. As a sacrament, it symbolizes purification, the washing away of sin and the birth of a new life. From a tapped hydrant to an armful of water balloons, it’s also just fun to play in on a hot summer day.

But what if you couldn’t trust your water supply? What if every glass was contaminated? Is every tubful toxic? What if you had witnessed your child’s slow decline? And what if you realized, to your horror, that the water you have been bathing her in, the water you had used to cook his food, that water you had given them as the final nighttime ritual before sleep, was actually poisoning your babies?

This is the reality for tens of thousands of families in Flint, Michigan, today. And while officials today proclaim the water to be safe, the psychological effects of the crisis linger. Unfortunately, so, too, does the cycle of neglect, indifference and powerlessness that leave communities of color particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological harms of environmental racism.

What Happened in Flint?

The events in Flint didn’t have to happen. They transpired due to a perfect storm; one born of aging infrastructure, a widespread economic crisis and a systemic pattern of bureaucratic apathy. In 2013, government officials, still contending with the lingering financial pressures of the Great Recession of 2008, decided to cut costs by tapping into the nearby Flint River to supply the city’s water. To keep expenses at a minimum, the river water was not treated to prevent corrosion. Exposure to the unfiltered river water, with its natural and man-made infiltrates, dramatically accelerated the deterioration of the city’s aged water pipes, allowing lead to leach into the water.

Despite the known risks of exposing the city’s antiquated water system to the untreated river water, not only did officials persist in their machinations but they also repeatedly ignored citizens’ widespread concerns and voluminous complaints. For more than two years, residents’ outcries were ignored and officials persisted in denying the problem until, at last, contamination levels had reached such a magnitude they could no longer be denied.

Long-Term Effects

Given the number of people affected, the long-term consequences of the Flint crisis can only be guessed at, but even the most optimistic projections are far from good. Tragically, it is the children who will pay the heaviest price. Exposure to lead can have catastrophic impacts on children’s neurological development, resulting in everything from seizures to cognitive impairment. Not only this but as lead levels increase in children’s bodies, they can also incur damage to other bodily systems, especially the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts.

Children aren’t the only ones who are vulnerable, however. Adults, too, are at risk, with pregnant women and the elderly especially predisposed to the systemic impacts of lead exposure. Likewise, fetuses exposed to lead in utero are at risk for premature birth, low birth weight and developmental delays.

Why Did This Happen?

The stark reality is that while Flint may be the most flagrant example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history, it is by no means the first, last or only. Studies increasingly show that impoverished communities and communities of color are at extreme risk of suffering the effects of environmental injustice, effects which include not only physical but extreme psychological harm. 

Sadly, though these communities are the most commonly and catastrophically affected by these events, they are also the communities least capable of doing anything to prevent them. In fact, a sort of blame-the-victim mentality is often built into the very system as a means of maintaining the status quo by perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Poor, sick and struggling communities are that way, so the story goes, because the people who live there simply do not try hard enough, simply do not want to better themselves, their families, or their communities. Better to divert funds where they will be put to best use, the story goes, rather than sinking them into the morass of the poorest neighborhoods.

Such is the false narratives that allowed the Flint crisis to go unchecked for nearly two years. Such are the stories that allowed so many residents’ complaints to be summarily dismissed as the hypochondriacal ravings of the perpetual victim. Such are the tales that allowed government officials and utility companies to continue counting their profits while the people they were supposed to serve suffered.

The Aftermath

The Flint crisis is not over. Even presuming the water to be clean, the effects of the tragedy endure. Even as victims of the contamination crisis continue to struggle with the physical effects of the exposure, they also must face the lingering psychological impacts, including symptoms of PTSD. Not only this, but emerging reports of an even worse contamination event now occurring in Newark, New Jersey threatens to revive traumatic memories even for those who seem to have escaped the crisis, for the moment, unscathed. 

At the core of this catastrophe was not the erosion of pipes or the adulteration of the water. At the core of this catastrophe was the loss of trust and security, the certainty that home was a safe place — the loss of faith that when you give your child a glass of water at night or you cook your family dinner on Sunday, you’re not slowly poisoning them — the loss of faith that your family’s lives mean more to your government than a few pennies saved on every dollar.