Access to clean water is a basic resource for human survival. Increasingly, however, access to clean water is being compromised around the world. While the United States is rich in clean water, evidence suggests that some local governments are failing to deliver it equitably to all residents. Ironically, today’s most notable clean water crises are occurring in water-rich Michigan, a state surrounded by the largest combined bodies of freshwater in the world. Consequently, these crises are not because there is not enough clean water, but rather, because those local officials prioritize financial frugality before the health and welfare of its most disenfranchised citizens.
Water issues in Michigan have been commonplace over the last two years. The Center for the Human Rights of Children (CHRC) wrote about the city of Detroit’s decision to withhold water to its poorest residents because they could not afford to pay their bills. Yet while this crisis was unfolding, another calamity was developing less than 70 miles away in Flint, a home to 99,000 residents, including 40 percent living in poverty. In this case, residents have access to water, but the water they do have is toxic. Reports suggest that over 25 percent of Flint homes have elevated lead levels in their water that exceeds EPA safety thresholds. This water threatens the community’s health and jeopardizes the long-term development of nearly 9,000 children under six years of age.
In April of 2014, the city of Flint opted to switch its water source from Lake Huron, as delivered by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, to the Flint River to decrease costs for the struggling city. Residents complained of rashes and hair loss and called attention to the color and taste of the water almost immediately after the switch. Virginia Tech reported in September 2015 that the water from the Flint River was highly corrosive—so corrosive that lead was leaching into the water from the city’s aging infrastructure. The study found that Flint’s 90 percent lead value was 22 parts per billion (ppb). Federal regulations require corrective action at 15ppb. Several samples from this study exceeded 100 ppb, and one sample exceeded 1000 ppb. That means Flint residents were drinking, cooking with, and bathing in toxic water for over a year.
Around the same time, a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, began her own study. She looked at blood-lead levels for children in Flint over the year. Her findings were shocking. In the 20 months since Flint began sourcing its water from the Flint River, the percentage of children with elevated blood-lead levels doubled across the city—with some areas seeing a triple increase.
The research on lead finds that its impact, even at the lowest levels, is devastating to a child’s development. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that “no safe lead level has been identified” and that “level exposure can affect every nearly every system in the body.” Effects of lead include decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system, speech and language problems, developmental delays, and seizures and unconsciousness (at extremely high lead levels). Recent studies also find a correlation between lead exposure and criminal arrests in early adulthood and violent crime.
According to the CDC, approximately 535,000 children throughout the United States, ages 1 to 5, and 20,110 in Illinois, ages 1 to 6, have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health and those children are disproportionately African American and from poor families. Nationwide, poor families are eight times more likely to have lead poisoning than families with higher incomes, while African American children are five times more likely than white children to be lead poisoned. Although lead infused water is one source, it also appears in other objects where children live and play. Notably, it is found in lead-based toys and paints and lead-contaminated soil. It is particularly attractive to young children and ingested because of its sweet taste.
Advocates in Chicago, such as Loyola’s ChildLaw Policy Institute and Lead Safe Illinois, have been calling for a proactive approach to lead removal that saves children from the most devastating effects of the neurotoxin. However, efforts to abate lead and address other environmental toxins are often eclipsed by financial and budgetary impediments. While there is a financial cost to addressing these issues, there is a greater human cost if we do not. Children, and all people, have a right to safe and clean water AND a right to live in a home that is safe from lead.
In 2010, the United Nations declared that access to safe drinking water is essential to the realization of all other rights. Additionally, this declaration calls on governments to provide adequate resources to help provide clean water for all. The independent review commission by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder pointed to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for not following regulations protecting public health. Rather, this government entity focused on a minimalist approach of “technical compliance.” If policies had been compliant with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, they could have prevented widespread exposure to dangerous and debilitating lead levels in the drinking water.
Many Americans think of human rights as an issue that effects actions in far-off places with little relevance to their everyday life. However, the prevalence of lead in Flint’s water and other communities highlights the importance of proactively holding government responsible for addressing the lead problem, which is occurring in our own backyard.
Lead and Water Rights Resources:environmental toxins, flint, lead, michigan, water