Behind Flint’s Lead-Poisoned Water
Largely abandoned by auto manufacturers who shifted factories to low-wage areas, Flint, Michigan, suffers from a powerlessness that allowed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials to ignore the city’s lead-poisoned water, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.
By Dennis J Bernstein
The lead-poisoned water of Flint, Michigan, is a national scandal that bears on multiple American problems, from poverty and race, to the impact of industrialization and deindustrialization, to political attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators who then fail to do their jobs protecting citizens from hazards.
Columbia University Professor David Rosner, a leading expert on the deadly history of the use of lead by U.S. corporations, most notably General Motors, has documented how lead in various ways was mainlined into the blood streams of Americans, throughout the Twentieth Century, as a result of corporate greed.
Co-author of seven books on industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, Dr. Rosner was interviewed by Dennis J Bernstein.
DB: Let’s begin with the micro and work our way out to the macro. What’s your best understanding of what happened in Flint? How did it come to pass that the people of Flint, mostly black and Latino, a bit less than half of them living under the poverty line, were poisoned by their own government?
DR: Well, it’s government, and its industry, and it’s all of us, in some sense. The short story is that the water in the Flint River corroded pipe, and leeched out of those pipes lead, into the faucets, and into the water the children were drinking. And that this was essentially something that was identified literally a couple of years ago, and the problem was never addressed, and was depicted as kind of a public relations problem, rather than a public health problem.
So children were ingesting this lead, and they were accumulating lead in their blood. And a young physician, Mona Hanna-Attisha, discovered that she was seeing in her hospital that children were coming in with elevated blood lead levels. And that this was strange, that there was a real spike, that the children were coming in poisoned. And she began to make an issue of it. And she got the attention of some legislators finally, and also community leaders who began to protest the fact that these children were coming in with lead poisoning. She was, at first, basically brushed off as kind of an overwrought, young physician, a pediatrician.
But slowly it began to emerge that there had been lots of correspondence about the polluted water. And that the water was corroding the pipes. And that there was a real problem here that ultimately made national headlines and became an issue of national importance. The tiny issue, the kind of microcosm is that there was a crisis identified luckily and became, by a whole set of circumstances, the focal point of national attention. The broader issue, of course, is much more complex, it goes deep into the history of, basically, our exploitation of this community, and of its people, and of poor communities around the country.
DB: I want to get there, right now, professor. You left it off at a good spot. This is a question [that] will get us into General Motors, about who knew what, when. A couple of details just are drilling through my brain. … The fact that, on the one hand, the government made available water coolers for state workers in Flint and they were given the option to drink the water cooler water or the poison. That’s one thing, and then we also find out that General Motors got a special dispensation from, I guess it’s Lake Huron, because their parts were being corroded by the water that they were feeding to the people and the kids of Flint.
DR: Well, you know, the story goes deeper into Flint’s history, industrial history. The first point is who knew what when? Anybody who knew anything about the history of Flint … when an historian thinks of Flint what they think of is General Motors. What they think of is the fact that … one of the largest labor disputes in American history occurred in Flint.
It was the sight of the formation, really, of the United Auto Workers. It was the sight of the formation of, really, major parts of the CIO in the 1930’s, over working conditions, because [of] the working conditions and wages … because this was the largest industrial auto plant in the country. Maybe with the exception of Ford. It was the place where Chevrolets were built, where Cadillacs were built, where Fisher Body Parts Company was.
This was [where] miles of the waterfront were literally plants, 80 acres of that city were literally industrial plants, building cars in the 1930s. And when you think about that, what you realize is that river was basically the sewer for, not only the car manufacturers, but the people who made batteries, and supplied batteries for those cars which were filled with lead and toxins; the people who made the glass which had lead in it and silica; the people who made oil and lubricating materials that went into the cars; the people who made the paint that was leaded paint that would ultimately cover the cars.
In some sense this was a giant industrial pollution site literally from the 1920s on. And [it] was the site of labor disputes because of working conditions, because of the exploitation of those people. So the history of Flint is rooted in this industrial production and also in the pollution of that river, because that river was the place where the refuse was dumped.
So the first thing that would occur to you is that this is a river and a piece of land that has to be really closely monitored. The second thing that should have occurred to them and would have occurred to them, is that for 50 years people stopped drinking out of that river. They stopped using Flint water over 50 years ago, because of the potential of pollution. They actually shipped the water all the way from Lake Huron because that river from basically Flint all the way up the river, to the Saginaw River, and up to Saginaw was one giant production line, for production of the car, the American motor car.
So that’s what you would think of as an historian. [The river] they were drinking out of, in the first place, whether it had lead or not lead, whether it was corroding pipes or not corroding pipes, it was kind of a nutty idea, because you just know you had to really inspect that water. Then the other thing, as you raise and point out, General Motors itself stopped using that water because it destroyed the transmissions of their cars. It was not pure enough to use for manufacturing the car, the transmissions. So they stopped using it.
The other thing, of course, was that a couple of years ago, or a year ago, they started shipping water into state buildings. So there was a lot of suspicion about what that water was. It’s not necessarily that they knew lead was in it, but they knew that something was wrong with it. And that they depicted this as a minor problem really talks to a much broader history of the domination of industries, but also the political power structure in Flint, and in Michigan in general, which was essentially a power structure that emphasized low levels of regulation, little government, suspicion of government, attempts to make sure that government didn’t do anything.
So, while we think that the government, the bureaucrats, the government regulators were at fault, in fact they had been subjected to 30 years of constant propaganda about how they shouldn’t touch business, especially in a state which had just gone through major economic crises. You know, the idea of regulating companies or forcing them to clean up the messes they made, or to even start regulating the environment, would have been depicted as an assault on industries, an assault on jobs. …
I think we all, watching the presidential elections, we know what would have happened. So on the one hand, I blame government for not doing anything. On the other hand, I understand how the EPA and the local water environmental quality people, and all the other people who should have had their fingers on this issue, were in some sense intimidated about ever raising this issue until it became a crisis. You know, there are many Flints. Flint, Michigan, is just one of many sites around the country that have been used for industrial production, and they were abandoned. And, so, in some sense we’re experiencing many, many Flints. We just don’t know about them yet.
DB: I was teaching in the New York City school system in the early and mid-seventies, and it became illegal to paint the schools with lead, in I think it was 1978. I do know that I was a teacher of emotionally disturbed children and I worked with therapists and all the things that I’m reading about again, reading about in terms of the impacts of lead poisoning on kids and learning is just, again, devastating.
And I want to ask you before we go on and paint a larger picture, here around the country, I want to ask you how bad … what’s your informed judgment in terms of how bad the damage is going to be to the people, to the children? What can we say about that? We have about 100,000 folks who live in Flint.
DR: Sure. Well, in Flint and in the rest of the country … you know, first of all you have to understand that this epidemic is probably the longest running childhood, self-inflicted epidemic in American history. It’s been going on since early 1900’s. We’ve known about the dangers of lead paint specifically, and lead on the neurological development of the children. In the early part of the century, children went into convulsions, and comas and died from lead exposure. More recently, as it was put into gasoline, the kids breathed [it] in …
I remember ethyl gasoline. It was in the paint, it covered every wall. And it doesn’t take much lead to really poison a child. It takes less than a thumb nail sized … you know, one coat of a thumb nail could send a kid into convulsions. I mean, that’s the amount of lead it takes to harm a child. It’s the dust on the walls, it’s not big chunks of lead, it’s not a bullet that you swallow, it’s not chips that come off the wall. It’s dust. …
Our country, many of our cities, in the East and, I guess, the West, particularly were covered with lead because the cities expanded dramatically at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, we built entire cities. The whole mid-western belt of…rust belt cities were built in that period of time. And they all used lead at one point or another.
I mean, just to give your listeners a sense of what we’re talking about … this isn’t just a little bit of color, a little bit of lead in a can of paint, but throughout the early part of the century, at least the first half of the century, at least a half of every can of paint was composed of lead carbonate. At least in lead paint, I should say. There were other alternatives. But, if you painted with lead paint, you were talking about painting with 50 percent of the can of paint would be lead carbonate, which meant essentially every can of paint would smear up to 15 pounds of lead on the walls of a home.
So when you think about painting a city that was built in the early part of the century, over and over again, when you think about the number, the coats of paint that go on each time, and the number of times you paint in any 50 year period, you’re talking about every home having hundreds and hundreds of pounds of a neurotoxin of which the size of a nail is enough to send a kid into convulsions. So you’re talking about a huge problem, a huge problem.
The simple fact is that kids began to be identified as having lead poisoning as early as 1904 in Australia, and increasing throughout the early part of the century. In the United States we began identifying children in the 19-teens, a century ago now, as having been exposed to lead and developing convulsions and dying. We had, in the 1920’s, many articles that appeared in medical and public health journals, and yet, despite that, the lead industry, the lead pigment industry, began to push more and more, and harder and harder, to introduce lead into all the paints we used.
So the National Lead Company, for example, owned a company, I guess it’s still in existence, I don’t know if they own it anymore, Dutch Boy Paint. We’ve all seen the symbol of the Dutch Boy. The guy that sits on a swing with a brush in his hand. They marketed it to families. They told children to paint books that had the Dutch Boy in story land. Images of the Dutch Boy conquering old man gloom, and protecting the child from the evils of wall paper. I mean it’s really bizarre stuff, of 19th century houses that had to be repainted and they’re saying get rid of old man gloom, this 19th century dark color, we can brighten up your home.
DB: I remember those Dutch Boy commercials. I loved them.
DR: Yeah, and these advertisements are quite astounding. And they gave out booklets to kids, in paint stores. And told their parents to go buy this paint. And they gave out costumes to use as paint. So at the same time that internally, in their own corporate records, they’re talking about children dying from exposure to paint, they’re talking about it as a public relations problem, not a public health problem.
They’re saying “It’s really terrible. But it’s only happening…” they say at one point… “among Negro and Puerto Rican families. So let’s not worry about it. We can’t deal with it until we’ve torn down all the cities because all the cities’ housing is filled with this stuff. So we can’t really deal with it. And it’s only among Negro and Puerto Rican families that [it’s] happening. And it’s among ignorant women, ignorant families that don’t know how to take care of their kids, that’s causing this problem in the first place.”
This is the 1950’s. In 1950’s they’re talking about this problem. And beforehand, they’re identifying the kids dying, they fought legislation in Baltimore and elsewhere. And they fought warning labels that would indicate that lead was a problem. They threatened people with lawsuits, or physicians with lawsuits who identified lead poisoning among the children. They offered money and grants to people in order not to study it. It’s a really ugly history, like it really rivals, in fact I think it precedes the tobacco industry’s Joe Camel, and all the advertising and lies that they gave.
So you have this situation where in 1955 they’re saying “Look, we have a real problem, there’s a real problem here but it’s only affecting those families and it’s probably due to the fact that the parents are ignorant. They don’t know how to stop the kid from crawling on the floor, and putting their hands in their mouth, or going near a wall, that’s painted with lead.”
It’s a heartrending story that means that we’ve literally poisoned knowingly for a century, generations and generations of kids, most of whom were minority kids, most of whom were politically powerless. And we’re, in some sense, just beginning to cope with the massive damage. Kids don’t go into comas anymore, but they do get affected by this low-level exposure that causes them to develop subtle neurological problems: learning disorders, loss of IQ, behavioral problems, attention deficit, hyperactivity, all sorts of issues that interfere in their school performance, interfere in their lives, and interfere and literally change the course of their lives. So it’s an ongoing tragedy.
And the CDC still says that there are about 500,000 children with elevated blood lead levels, now, in the country. And this is a century after we began identifying children as having exposure to lead, and lead being a terrible neurotoxin  for children. I’m sorry I’m going on too long.
DB: No, no, it’s incredibly important. There’s a tremendous amount of information that we know. But there’s a little blockage because of all the stuff you were talking about in terms of the way in which the corporations have suppressed real information, and corporate media really isn’t all that interested. So it’s very important to hear what you say Dr. Rosner. Just two more issues I want to hit. First of all, the broader picture, we’re not just talking about Flint. I guess you have your eyes on a few other cities. Tell us about the broader picture.
DR: Well, the broader picture is that this is a problem in every community in the country, this low-level exposure. Every time a family moves into an older building, a Victorian house, and renovates, they’re releasing lead. Every time they scrape a wall, every time they repaint and sand, you know, sand a wall to make it flat, every time they have a leak in the roof, that leads to paint puckering up, every time they drink out of the water fountain in older cities, where the pipes still exist, and the pipes are leaching lead, you’ve got a problem. And so we have to figure out how to address it. And everyone has been asking, “Why doesn’t government change it?”
And the bigger question is, “Why,” — and this is a problem that will take a lot of money, a lot of time, it can be done systematically, it doesn’t have to break the bank, but, — “Why isn’t the industry, why aren’t the industries that actually profited for generations from the use of lead, and actually sold it and created this mess in the first place, why aren’t they held accountable? Why aren’t they being asked to contribute to lead poisoning?” There are big suits here in California. There was a big trial a couple of years ago, in which there was a lawsuit against the lead pigment manufacturers…
DB: And they won a bunch of money, right?
DR: Well, [the state] won $1.15 billion from these companies. It’s now under appeal in the Supreme Court. And everyone is wondering how it’s going to turn out because it’s a very big political issue, if the Supreme Court decides that this can go forward, this is legitimate and it’s not going to be appealed. I’m not sure if it’s the Supreme Court or the appeals court, actually. I’m not sure how you are structured there.
The point is, it’s now being appealed and if it ultimately goes the way that the judge decided in the first place, this is a way of thinking about [how] other cities are going to think about this. Because this is extremely important. It was an extremely groundbreaking and important suit, but you have to realize that this is just one set of communities, it’s San Diego, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Oakland and a couple of other major communities in the state, that brought the suit. And everyone’s waiting with baited breath about how this is going to come out.
DB: In terms of the nature of racism in the communities that are subjected to this, these communities are the least able to fight back, to hire the … legal power. All this kind of stuff. What are your thoughts, just … back to the micro … the governor [of Michigan] says he’s not gonna show up [to Congressional hearings]. I guess they’re having hearings, they asked him to come to hearings. But he had to do budget work in Michigan. One wonders if this budget is going to include clean water for the people of Flint.
But isn’t it important to start investigating? The EPA has investigative powers, the Justice Department, all this kind of stuff. You poison people, you should be held accountable. Do you think that that would help start the ball rolling if the marshals went to gather up the governor of Michigan so he can testify and tell the truth about what happened?
DR: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve never understood why these were always liability suits over individual amounts of money, when, in fact, this seems like criminal behavior. But, of course, it should be [investigated], … This has to be investigated. I mean this is a paradigmatic case in a way. This is a paradigm for lots of other communities, and they have to know how it happened. And also you have to investigate and expose even if you don’t ultimately win a victory in terms of holding somebody personally accountable or the state accountable, because you want to put other people on notice around the country.
You want to let other departments of health to know that it’s not going to be easy to avoid. And that if they are not doing their job, or if they’re not regulating, if they’re not standing up for communities, they’re going to be held accountable. So I think it’s extremely important that investigations go forward if for no other reason to really publicly shame both public officials, and corporations and those individuals who allowed this to happen. There are kid’s lives that are being affected.
DB: And it is true, right, that you really can’t turn the clock back on lead poisoning. Once you got it, you got it.
DR: Well, once the damage is done, it’s a very insidious poison because it affects the neurology at very young ages. It changes the course of children’s lives, even in utero, it seems. But if a mother takes in lead, it will affect the child on initial exposure. It will change the behavior. … I’m not a neurologist, right? I feel awkward saying this, it will affect the brain, the development of the brain.
And once that pathway, or once the brain, is damaged it’s never going to heal, so to speak, because it’s still developing. It will develop around the problem, whatever the biochemical or physiological effects are, so that’s what seems to be the latest understanding of lead poisoning. [A] very little amount can affect you literally before you’re even aware of any developmental problems. It’s not going to show up for years.