‘A silent disaster’

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The Salvation Army and other agencies re-position Flint Water Crisis response toward the future.

Maegan Wilson kept hearing it: “The water’s fine to drink.”

But that didn’t add up.

Her 16-year-old daughter had begun losing her hair and developing sores all over her body. Eventually, things went so far south that she refused to leave the house.

“We switched [our water supply] in April 2014,” Wilson said. “By October, she was trying to kill herself, and there weren’t any mental health services available for her here.”

What Wilson didn’t yet know was that lead-contaminated water had been running from their tap for months. That was something her family, along with roughly 20,000 others, would later learn. Now, residents are looking to policymakers and local agencies to help heal a city fraught with challenges well before the catastrophe surfaced.

Flint’s water woes began in April 2014 when the city switched its main water supply to the Flint River to cut costs. The city switched back to Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in October 2014, but its pipes continued to leach lead, and its residents remained caught in the middle.

A class-action lawsuit followed, revolving around concerns over the dangers of consuming heavy metals. Yet, four months later many families continue to deal with the inconvenience of life without tap water.

For Wilson and her two daughters, that means bottled water for brushing their teeth and cooking, planning their meals around limited supplies and driving 20 minutes out of town just to take a shower. With no clear end in sight, many others have drawn up similar arrangements.

But these are inconveniences compared to the looming physical and mental health effects caused by lead. Young children are particularly susceptible to its toxic effects, which can impact the development of their brains and nervous systems. Lead can also harm adults, who face risk of elevated blood pressure and kidney damage.

Because much of the damage from the crisis has yet to surface, formulating a response has proved challenging.

“This is a really weird disaster,” said Captain Caleb Senn, Genesee County coordinator for The Salvation Army. “It’s like nothing else. It’s not like a hurricane, where you can see the area that is affected and where the houses are gone. This is like a silent disaster.”

Following the federal emergency declaration in January, The Salvation Army provided meals to first responders and testing kits to impacted residents, but it’s now partnering with with a group of agencies and organizations led by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to seek a long-term solution to the Flint Water Crisis.

A major focus of the weekly collaborative is the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, which will support early childhood education, student support services, continuous access to a pediatric medical home and access to infant and child behavioral health services.

“I think we’re really going to have to rely on the experts who can tell us what lead poisoning looks like in children five, 10 years down the road so we can start evolving some of our programs around them,” Senn said.  “[We’re talking] more intently on where we’re going from here.”

Currently, The Salvation Army runs an after-school program at the Flint Citadel Corps for first through eighth graders. A key component of the program is adapting its curriculum to best meet each student’s needs, focusing on the specific areas of standardized state testing on which students struggle.

While details on how the Army will specifically adapt such programs to impacted children remains to be seen, Senn insisted that when the time comes—they’ll be ready.

“I think we will respond to them like we respond to everyone else—without discrimination and as much as we can to have critical services for them,” he said. “Our biggest thing right now is outreach and education.”

According to Dr. Brenda Bauer, clinical psychologist with the American Psycholanalytic Association, children who are exposed to lead in the first three years of life are the most likely to experience the long-term irreversible effects. That’s because lead is more more easily absorbed into the developing soft tissues of young brains. The adult brain can manage neurologically what the pediatric brain cannot.

These physiological ramifications can lay a foundation for more serious behavioral impairment.        

“We know so much about lead that it’s hard not to see this as an environmental injustice, and one that challenges people who are already a vulnerable population,” Bauer said of Flint, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line. “Neglect and abuse are often linked to an increased susceptibility to all sorts of harmful behaviors: exposure to things such as substance abuse, aggressivity, even violence.

“It just sets these kids up in such a negative way for the rest for their lives,” she said.

According to Tamara Rubin, founder and director of nonprofit Lead Safe America, the first step to addressing such outcomes is getting children in the community tested for elevated lead levels in their blood.

“These kids need to get tested now, and document their blood levels now, so that if they are elevated at all, they can get treatment, and they can also get special services and a diagnosis of brain injury due to lead poisoning,” she said. “If they don’t get the diagnosis, then they have a much harder fight when they get to school and need special education services.”

Rubin, who lives in Portland, Ore., has an 11-year-old son who was exposed to lead paint as an infant. Now, despite his high IQ and advanced auditory learning, he’s only reading at a first-grade level.

“It took me 11 years to learn what I know now,” she said. “My son was never put in early intervention because I didn’t know he was eligible.”

Back in Flint, Wilson eyes a future outside of Genesee County, but an imminent departure seems unlikely.

“It’s just a rough time,” she said with a sigh. “Every aspect of my life has been turned upside down.”

Yet, she hopes for a turnaround.

“Our focus should be on mental health,” she said. “Our focus should be on providing services to our kids…we need to be training the psychiatrists and the therapists here, so they know exactly how lead affects people and their behavior.”  

Flint Timeline

April 2014

The city of Flint, MI disconnects from Detroit’s water supply and begins drawing its water from the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. Almost immediately, residents begin complaining about the quality of this water.

August 2014

E. Coli is found in the water. Residents are advised to boil their water before use.

October 2014

General Motors discontinues using water from the Flint River, complaining that it could damage car parts.

January 2015

State environmental officials find the water contains potentially dangerous levels of trihalomethanes, a chemical contaminant resulting from the city’s attempts to disinfect the water. Four days later, city officials hold a press conference insisting the water is safe to drink.

January 9, 2015

The University of Michigan-Flint finds elevated levels of lead among the campus’s water supply, shutting off some drinking fountains in response.

February 25, 2015

The first test is conducted identifying elevated lead levels in a city residence. The water tested is found to contain almost ten times the EPA’s threshold for lead. EPA officials begin to look into the matter.

April 2015

A case of lead poisoning is identified in one of the children living in that home.

June 2015

An alliance comprised of clergy and lay community members file a lawsuit. A judge rejects their demands to be reconnected to Detroit’s water supply. 

September 2015

Scientists at Virginia Tech test water from 300 homes spread throughout the region, determining that the city’s problem of lead contamination is widespread. Local pediatricians raise an alarm that lead poisoning has become more prevalent among the city’s children.

October 2015

City officials warn residents that lead has been found in their water. County officials declare a public health emergency. By mid-month, the city has reconnected to the Detroit water supply.

November 2015

Residents of Flint file a class action lawsuit.

January 2016

President Obama declares a state of emergency in Flint.

SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Michigan Radio     

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