Ten years later, what lessons have we learned from the Flint water crisis?

Published on
November 13, 2023

No one could have imagined the devastation that was in store when city leaders made the ill-fated decision in 2014 to switch to the Flint River for drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Under financial pressure, they promised the change would save the city millions of dollars. Instead, the corrosive river water caused lead to leach from aging water pipes and pushed it into the homes of 99,000 Flint residents. 

The contamination affected thousands of children, who are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead. There is no safe level of lead for children, who are at an increased risk of brain damage, lower IQ, attention disorders, and behavioral and learning problems, even at low levels of exposure, as research has shown.

On the 10th anniversary of the Flint water crisis, I plan to investigate the health outcomes among children and families exposed to lead-tainted drinking water for Harvard Public Health magazine. To tell the stories of these children, now teenagers, I’ll visit with families to learn how they were impacted — physically, mentally, and emotionally — by one of the largest public health emergencies seen, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in modern America.

Teenagers are a focus of this project because they will experience the direct consequences of exposure longer than any other population. They can provide clarity on how lead exposure may impact communities over the long term. The story will also report on the government response, and examine the socioeconomic impacts of the water crisis, asking what role race may have played in events. 

The project, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund for Reporting on Health Equity and Health Systems, will feature interviews with community leaders and medical professionals — among them, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who sounded the alarm in 2015, shortly after she began to see increased blood lead levels in children after the water switch.

“We're never supposed to expose a population or a child to lead,” Hanna-Attisha told the program 60 Minutes in 2020. “Because we can't do much about it. It is an irreversible neurotoxin. It attacks the core of what it means to be you, and impacts cognition, how children think.”

Data will come from the city of Flint, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Servicesand the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other agencies, which states that lead exposure is especially harmful to children under 6, as their bodies are undergoing rapid development during this time.

I’ll also look at how the water change in Flint resulted in not only the leaching of lead but the spread of Legionella bacteria that killed about a dozen people, though media sources claim those deaths may be vastly underreported

My reporting will explain the science behind the chemical reactions that led to corrosion, and what steps were taken to return the city to a clean and sustainable source of drinking water. In the process, I’ll question why the decision to use the Flint River as a water source was left to bureaucrats, and seemingly carried out with little input from public health scientists who might have advised against the move.  

The ultimate goal is to offer insights into how communities can prevent and, if not, recover from such large-scale environmental disasters. I aim to shed light on the problem of racial disparities in health care, brought to wide attention during the pandemic, and consider how environmental racism — a subject I’ve covered for the better part of a decade — may have factored into the crisis. 

The hope is that readers, many of them working in higher branches of medicine, will be inspired to reflect on solutions to similar public health emergencies in the future. My wish is to offer a lesson on why such environmental injustices continue to unfold all over the country.