It has been more than a thousand days since the residents of Flint, Michigan could drink their tap water without a filter. After the city’s switch to a new water source in 2014, thousands of residents were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead, causing health problems and potentially permanent neurological damage in adults and children. Since then, the city has undertaken the replacement of its aging lead pipes, and public officials involved have been criminally charged for neglecting and covering up the crisis.
Progress has been slow, and Flint residents say that the crisis is far from over. Residents are expected to have to continue using water filters for the next 3 years. The children of Flint who were poisoned by lead for over a year may have suffered irreversible brain damage, which increases the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and potentially violent behavior in populations—another blight on a city already rife with poverty, high violent crime rates and low high school graduation rates. Residents are still fighting legal battles to hold public officials accountable for years of mismanagement and fraud. Meanwhile, the Trump administration plans to gut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, which would make it even more difficult for the already overwhelmed agency to enforce federal water standards.
Despite these continuing problems and the gripping headlines in 2015, the Flint water crisis has largely faded out of the public consciousness. In many ways, Flint follows the predictable cycle of public response to crises where initial frenzies of activism and social media hashtags are diverted elsewhere. In addition to the amnesia of the 24 hour news cycle, however, the Flint water crisis is also a case study in myopia. We honed in on the images of tainted water and rusty pipes, but the water crisis itself was only the surface of the problem. Few people understand the series of crises that rocked Flint since the 1960s, including the deep economic depression caused by manufacturing industry layoffs, escalating crime rates, and multiple financial crises intersecting issues of race and socioeconomic class. The water crisis was caused in large part by the city’s aging and neglected infrastructure, while the switch from using Huron River to untreated Flint River water was pushed as a cost-saving move. Public officials ignored and denied residents’ complaints about their water for over a year, and without the work of a few scientists and whistleblowers, the crisis would not have garnered the nation’s attention. Many activists who recognize the patterns of environmental racism question whether the same would have happened if Flint’s population were wealthy and white.
Flint serves as a valuable lesson in responding to tragedy. Lightning-fast media cycles engender forgetfulness and an “out of sight, out of mind” complacency, even as victims continue to suffer in obscurity. As media consumers, we also have a responsibility to demand more from their news stories—too often, we focus on the “what”, without asking “why” or “how”, overlooking big-picture problems. We keep abreast of current events, but fail to engage with them emotionally or intellectually, or sustain interest in them long enough for our awareness to meaningfully impact on our attitudes and behaviors.
Flint is not the exception, and the struggle is not over: nearly 3,000 other communities have lead levels at least as high as Flint’s, and the proposed spending cuts to environmental agencies are likely to affect these communities. Remembering Flint, we should not let tragedy strike again.
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