The lead crisis in Flint will affect the city for years to come

By now, the story of what’s happening in Flint is well known. The city has been struggling since the decline of its automobile industry. Its financial troubles were severe enough that the city went into state receivership and an emergency manager was appointed by the state of Michigan to fix the budget. One way to lighten Flint’s financial woes was to cease piping water all the way from Detroit and instead source water locally. A water treatment facility that would be used to get water from Lake Huron would not be ready for a couple of years, so as a stopgap measure, the city began piping water from the polluted Flint River. Residents started complaining about the water almost immediately. City authorities waffled—issuing boil orders, telling residents to run their taps for five minutes before using the water, and adding large amounts of chlorine (creating another problem), before finally admitting that the water was undrinkable.

Since the switch to Flint River water, the number of children in Flint with blood lead levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter has doubled. In some Flint zip codes, the numbers are even higher. And those are only the children we know about. The number of children who are lead poisoned is likely much higher.

Children who have been exposed to lead suffer irreversible learning deficiencies and behavioral problems and the effects of early exposure persist throughout life. Even very low levels of lead contribute to cognitive impairment, including reductions in IQ, verbal, and reading ability, with no identifiable safe bottom threshold. Lead exposure also affects young children’s behavior, leading to a greater propensity to engage in risky behavior and violent or criminal activity later in life.

Children with blood lead levels from 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter have average IQ scores 4.9 points lower than children with levels below 5. Children with blood lead levels above 10 are about three times as likely to be anti-social or hyperactive as children with lower levels.

Unfortunately, the situation in Flint is emblematic of a broader epidemic of lead exposure in American cities. Removing lead from fuel in the late 1970 and 1980s precipitated a drop in teen pregnancies, violent crimes, and incarceration fifteen to twenty years later. Compared to children of the 60s and early 70s, children of the 80s who were less exposed to lead were also less likely to have sex earlier or commit crimes. Most American children have blood lead levels of 1 or 2 micrograms per deciliter or less, but about half a million children—mostly black and living in urban neighborhoods, like Flint—have levels above 5. This disparity contributes to gaps in student achievement in disproportionately low income and African American neighborhoods. Remember Freddie Gray, a petty criminal with learning difficulties who never finished school, and who was murdered by the police in Baltimore? Gray’s lead blood level reached 37 micrograms per deciliter when he was 22 months old.

What can we expect in Flint? When Flint children who have been lead poisoned reach school age, the city will probably see a drop in student test scores. Once they reach their teenage years, we can expect to see an increase in teen pregnancies, violent crimes, and incarcerations. And this for a city that is already swimming upstream.

In November, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed off on a teacher performance plan in which 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student test score gains. If teachers are deemed ineffective for three years in a row, they will be fired. That plan should be scrapped: No Flint teacher should be evaluated on student score gains, because no Flint teacher or school is responsible for government neglect or a lead health crisis. We should do what we can to provide these children with support, but no amount of education reform will undo the cognitive damage this water crisis has done.

The state of Michigan owes Flint children an enormous debt, which should include quality education, health support services, and a full employment policy. The burden of responsibility should be shouldered, as much as it can be, by the state, not the individuals who were victims of a criminally negligent government.