Lead in Our Water? How Did This Happen? That's Easy.

In the last month or so we’ve been hearing about unacceptable levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. How did happen?

First some background: Like cities all over the country, Flint looks to its past for it’s best days. In the first half of the 20th Century, Flint prospered from the automobile industry. But when their plants closed in the 1980s their population dwindled and it became harder to raise the money to run the city.

Previous to 2014 Flint purchased its water from the city of Detroit who got water from Lake Huron (you can read about this here). But in an effort to save money the leaders in Flint decided to switch over and get their water directly from the Flint River. Almost immediately residents of Flint noticed a change in their water quality. You can find an excellent article here.

But the real danger was not the color or smell of the water, but elevated levels of lead. In response to ongoing protests by Flint’s citizens the city began to test the water. There are a few heroes here, and one of them is LeeAnne Walters. She was a loud critic of the water and when the city tested the water coming out of her tap, they found something alarming.

The Environmental Protection Agency claims that no lead is acceptable, but by law 15 parts per billion (ppb) is allowed. The water coming out of the Walter’s tap: 400 ppb. When she had her children’s lead levels tested, they all tested positive and one of them received a diagnosis of lead poisoning. Lead levels in children cause irreversible brain damage.

LeeAnne, digging through city documents, learned that when Flint switched water providers they failed to provide “corrosive controls” that prevented lead from water pipes to leach into the water supply. During this time local and state officials continued to insist that the water was safe even when they knew it wasn’t.

So how did this happen? Alas, this has led to the hand wringing and finger pointing that has become all too common in our current political discourse. There are calls for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder.

This won’t solve anything. I’m frustrated by the fact that whenever we uncover a crisis we look for a scapegoat instead of looking to a permanent solution. The phrase drinking the Kool Aid owns a place in our vocabulary for a reason. In 1978 nine hundred and thirteen people willingly committed suicide by drinking cyanide laced Kool Aid because they were told to by Jim Jones.

Since 1978 the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” has expanded to people who sacrifice their integrity for job security. This, I believe, informs what happened in Flint. This, I believe, explains why officials in Flint and Lansing continued to lie to the good people of Flint about the safety of their water. They sacrificed the safety of children they will never meet to ensure they won’t lose their job.

Really? Yes. It’s hard to imagine but job security matters to people. Fear is a frighteningly powerful motivator and the fear of losing our job easily leads us into dangerous territory. Flint and Lansing are full of bureaucrats who lied about water safety and prayed they would get away with it.

The other factor is even worse. Those in power knew that they would likely never meet the people their decisions would affect. The African American population in Flint is currently 53.27%. They are poor and black and easy to ignore. Lying about the dangers to children you’ll never meet is easier than lying about your neighbors.

Sadly I’ve witnessed times where people I knew “drank the Kool Aid.” I’ve seen people who, under pressure to “not make waves” or “go along” or “not be a problem” have remained silent when they should have said something. And even more sadly, I have to admit there have been times when that person was me. I pray those times not happen again.

That said, there are heroes in Flint right now. I told you about LeeAnne Walters. I also want to give a shout our to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

Let us all aspire to be LeeAnne’s and Mona’s and let us pray that no more children are damaged by cowardice.

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