Why Did Officials Neglect Flint? Because They Felt They Could.

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tags: Flint, Lead contamination



Bob Buzzanco is a professor of history at the University of Houston and author of several books and articles on the Vietnam era, U.S. foreign policy, protest movements, and other topics.  He blogs at Afflict The Comfortable (where this article first appeared) and can be reached on twitter @bobbuzzanco.

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Flint and Detroit Water, 2016

By now, most Americans should have heard about the lead in Flint, Michigan’s water. Lead—the stuff that was the subject of national campaign beginning in the LBJ years and declared a success just a couple decades later. Lead—a soft malleable metal, used in construction, in batteries and bullets, used for solder and in pewter, in paint and gasoline, a radiation shield—quite useful but toxic if ingested, causing damage to the nervous system and brain. Evidence of lead poisoning was found in digs of Ancient Greece and Rome. More recently, lead was a staple element in house paints and the gasoline that fueled America’s cars (you used to go to a gas station and someone would come to your door and ask “leaded or unleaded”). But, thankfully, that lead crisis was resolved—lead paint was banned in 1978, leaded gasoline in 1986. However, as is often the case, environmental victories . . . aren’t. 

Today, in 2016, over 50 years since lead poisoning became a serious national issue, Flint’s water supply is full of this toxic element that we all thought was banned and regulated and otherwise fixed back when Carter, Reagan and Bush were presidents.

Until 2013, Flint bought its water from the city of Detroit, but in April, with city leaders (state-appointed city managers) claiming they could save millions of dollars, dropped Detroit and agreed to get its water from Lake Huron, from the Karegondi Water Authority, a municipal company made up of water departments from nearby counties.

But Huron water wouldn’t be available for three years, and Detroit told Flint it would only sell it water for another year.   So as a stopgap measure, Flint decided to get its water from the Flint River. Within a month after swapping out Detroit water for Flint River water, there were problems. Residents complained of the color and murky and foaming quality of their drinking water. City managers, in response, began treating the water with lime, though the mayor made light of the situation—“I think people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water,” he chipped in.

But in August, and again in September, 2014, city water tested positive for e.coli bacteria, and in October the GM plant in Flint refused to use the Flint River water because it was rusting car parts. The city gave GM a different water line. The people living in Flint continued to drink the water that was colored, foaming, had e.coli, and was rusting car parts.  Though, to be fair, the rusting car parts were offered a remedy that the H2O drinkers weren’t.  So Flint’s priorities, to be sure, were in order.

And things were getting worse. In January 2015, the city admitted that trihalomethanes, a byproduct of disinfectants, was in the drinking water, but city officials assured everyone that the water remained safe to drink; and to prove that the city hired a consultant, for $40,000, who investigated the water supply and said it contained sediment and had a funny color . . . but it was safe to drink.

A week after the consultant’s reassurance, the EPA told Michigan officials that lead from pipes was leaching into the water. In April, the city had to tell Flint’s water drinkers that it had failed to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, but the mayor tweeted that his “family and I drink and use the Flint water everyday, at home, work, and schools.”

Still, the people of Flint were not assured, and continued to report water problems. In July, Governor Rick Snyder’s chief of staff wrote an email to the Department of Community Health observing that Flint residents were “concerned and rightfully so” about the lead crisis. “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).” The chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, announced his retirement a month later.  On October 16, 2015, Flint switched back to Detroit water.

Continuing into this year, several studies have confirmed the high lead levels and cases of lead poisoning spiked, with 27,000 children exposed to lead contamination, according to health experts, with levels 200-1300 times higher than World Health Organization standards for lead toxicity. Health officials also reported cases of Legionnaires’ Disease in January. In January, Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint and called out the National Guard to distribute bottled water. But the full extent of the damage still isn’t known, or done, as there are now thousands in Flint who need treatment for lead poisoning, and untold numbers who are undiagnosed.

Flint’s Mayor, Dayne Walling, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder were obviously aware of the noxious contamination of Flint’s water, yet did nothing but assure everyone that all was well. They were aware of a profound chemical toxicity that would ultimately affect huge numbers, and made no attempt to rectify it, just took public relations measures to try to make the problem go away. They have taken political heat for their inaction, but face no legal recriminations to this point, and most assuredly will not.

There’s no evidence that the mayor or governor or other official deliberately dumped lead into Flint’s water, and lead isn’t a chemical, and Flint is not in conflict with another country, or even city. Still, it’s interesting to look at the language in the United Nation’s Chemical Weapons Convention. It defines a “toxic chemical” as “Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere.”

Unwittingly, sure, but state officials in Michigan were practicing the equivalent of chemical warfare on the people of Flint, through the most benign of methods . . . a glass of water had become a WMD.

But Flint’s water is far from the first case of the public’s health being subordinated, or dismissed, or ignored, or even endangered, by the state. In probably the most egregious example in U.S. history, health officials in Tuskegee, Alabama conducted a 40-year long experiment titled the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”

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Handbill Advertising Tuskegee Program


Beginning in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service began a study of 600 Blacks in Macon County, Alabama, where Tuskegee was located, whom were mostly poor sharecroppers. Researchers told the men they would be studying “Bad Blood,” a term often used for ailments like anemia or fatigue. Of the 600 human subjects, all chosen without any of the protocol for human testing being used and being deceived about the nature of the study, 399 already had syphilis, 40 wives would get the disease, and 19 children would be born with it.

Still virtually unknown, between 1946-1948 American doctors with NIH also paid for syphilis-infected prostitutes in Guatemala to sleep with mental patients prisoners, and soldiers to infect them and when that failed, some health officials even poured bacteria into scrapes made on subjects’ penises, faces or arms, or even injected by spinal tap, in other words, they conducted biological warfare experiments on unwitting victims.

Those in the study at Tuskegee were offered medical exams, meals at the clinic, free treatment of minor ailments, and even burial provisions. But not any remedy, even after penicillin became widely recognized as the treatment for syphilis in 1947. For 25 more years, Blacks in the Tuskegee experiment, suffering from a debilitating disease, were denied treatment, used as human guinea pigs by government health officials. After the Tuskegee story broke, the government commissioned the Belmont Report to establish “Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research.” The authors of the report, in the section on “Basic Ethical Principles,” made some interesting connections in its narrative on the historical exploitation of human subjects

. . . Subsequently, the exploitation of unwilling prisoners as research subjects in Nazi concentration camps was condemned as a particularly flagrant injustice. In this country, in the 1940’s, the Tuskegee syphilis study used disadvantaged, rural black men to study the untreated course of a disease that is by no means confined to that population. These subjects were deprived of demonstrably effective treatment in order not to interrupt the project, long after such treatment became generally available.

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Concurrent with the Tuskegee Syphilis scandal, the government was also looking for advantages in the Cold War, including mind control. In 1953, looking for a way to get information from enemy officials or soldiers, government agents began giving LSD, a psychedelic drug that would be widely used by Harvard professors and young people in the 1960s, to mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts, prostitutes and others on the margins of society—and later, also without any information or consent, CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, and members of the general public—hoping it would prompt them to open up and give away personal information.  For some LSD offered hallucinogenic bliss, but not so much for others, and, using Tuskegee ethics, used humans as test subjects without permission.

In San Francisco, the CIA even opened brothels with mirrors where they could observe and film the men who had, unknown to them, been given LSD-laced drinks. Like Tuskegee, the Army and CIA, in clear violation of international and U.S. laws, including the postwar Nuremberg Code, subjected humans, sometimes daily for weeks, to conditions that were inherently harmful, with mental health issues and even suicides among some of the subjects in the study.  On the other hand, we did get The Grateful Dead and The Moby Grape out of it . . .

Flint, Tuskegee, and the LSD experiments are just a few high-profile and particularly horrific cases of the state exposing humans—deliberately or through disregard–with toxic or dangerous substances.  The most recent cases in Flint have also brought charges of “environmental racism,” which makes comparisons to Tuskegee more apt.  Flint is about 56 percent Black and 38 percent White, and extremely poor.

One New York Times article offered the lede: “If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?”  To suggest that race wasn’t a key factor in Flint seems far-fetched, and one should reasonably assume that the reality of Flint’s demographics—a city of mostly poorer African Americans—made it much easier to dismiss early reports of tainted water.

But it’s also true that the state and the oligarchy which actually runs things has little regard for any poor people, and Flint is a good example.  Since the 1980s, Flint, home to a famed GM plant, lost over 70,000 jobs—”outsourced” abroad for cheaper labor.  The majority of those who lost their jobs were working-class Whites, and thus the Caucasian population of Flint declined significantly.   In 1965 [the only year for which I could find data] GM in Flint employed over 42,000 White hourly workers, and 6500 Blacks; over 10,000 salaried Whites to only 108 Blacks, 7800 skilled tradesman to 78, and 356 White apprentices to 3 Blacks.  Since only about 8000 GM jobs remain in Flint, it’s clear that those White workers were pink-slipped along with their Black co-workers.  (Andrew Highsmith, “Demolition Means Progress,” History dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009).

As jobs left Flint, the city’s racial composition changed sharply.  In 1980, Flint had about 160,000 residents, down from 193,000 ten years earlier.  By 1990, it was down to 140,000.  With that decline in population, the city became more African American–as the Black population increased from over 54,000 in 1970 to 66,000 in 1980, and to over 67,000 in 1990.  Meanwhile, the White population, some from “White flight” to the suburbs but from the GM layoffs principally, fell from 138,000 in 1970 to about half that number in 1990.

So Flint had suffered through a perfect storm over the course of the past two generations—deindustrialization, massive job losses, increased poverty, and racism, all leading to lead-poisoned water.  The Grey Lady’s question about environmental racism wasn’t wrong—it’s exponentially easier for the state and ruling class to ignore Black grievances—but perhaps could have been even more simply put: “If Flint were rich . . . would Michigan’s state government have responded . . .”

What these episodes show is that the people who run the state—at national and local levels—are concerned with interests other than those of the people and will go so far as to disregard or actively damage their health if it can bring them profit or power.  Poor Blacks drinking water in Flint or White guys on the assembly line a few decades earlier, Black sharecroppers in Tuskegee, and a wide diversity of people given LSD by the CIA and others experienced that use of power.  So while  U.S. leaders lecture about weapons of mass destruction or public health horrors elsewhere or the moral responsibility of nations, it needs to be said, time and again, that the people who run this country used humans as test subjects and turned water into a WMD.




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