Irwin Redlener is president and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. His Twitter handle is @IrwinRedlenerMD.
As a pediatrician — and grandfather — I ask myself: What would I do if I had family members raising kids in Flint, Mich., right now?
The answer is anything in my power to get them out of that toxic, distressed and struggling city. And if that’s the right answer on a personal basis, it offers a critical insight into what has to be considered on a general policy level for the health and well-being of a community where water for drinking and bathing has been contaminated with lead for almost two years.
Given the threat of ongoing lead exposure and the community’s well-founded mistrust of government, should families be offered at least temporary resettlement while upgrades, repairs and enhancements are made to Flint’s badly contaminated water infrastructure?
I ask this fully aware of how unprecedented and complex such a policy would be. After all, some 9,000 young children may have been exposed to contaminated water. Safely and efficiently resettling children and their families would be an enormous challenge. But such a step needs to be on the table, because lead, as most of us know by now, is a bad-news neurotoxin that can permanently affect brain development and learning. That won’t happen to every child in Flint; many will not suffer measurable consequences of exposure. But no parent can be reliably assured that his or her child will not suffer intellectual or behavioral consequences from prolonged exposure.
The fact is that lead is still leaching into the drinking water from corroded pipes, and we can’t be certain that the widely distributed hardware store water filters, which need to be installed properly and replaced on schedule, will reliably keep the water safe. As for the massive donations of bottled water to Flint residents, one young mother put it this way when I was in the city last week: “We all appreciate the bottled water. But now they need to take the money and fix the damn pipes.” Indeed.
While families are relocated to a safe interim community, two things need to happen.
First, every family with a potentially lead-affected child — whether relocated or remaining in Flint — needs comprehensive health services, developmental assessment and access to parenting enrichment programs, high-quality preschool and Head Start opportunities, and special support programs for school-age children. The state of Michigan and philanthropic organizations are working to fulfill these needs. But while terrific programs are increasingly available in Flint, nobody can be certain that continued exposure to lead will not be a problem until all of the damaged pipes are replaced.
Second, emergency funding must be identified — at sufficient scale — to rapidly and definitively repair and replace the damaged water infrastructure. This agenda is being pushed hard by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who recently declared that “we’re going to move quickly to get this done.”
But the necessary replacement of corroded pipes could require more than $1 billion, the bulk of which will probably need to come from the federal government. Efforts to secure these funds are being driven by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), but even if the funding is forthcoming, completing the job could take years.
In the meantime, every additional day in a home with lead-contaminated water puts a young child at further risk. This is especially worrisome for children living in poverty who already experience a high prevalence of conditions, such as hearing and vision deficits, chronic asthma and recurrent hunger, that may interfere with optimal development and learning.
As a deeply frustrated mother of three young children told me in the parking lot of a Flint pediatric clinic, “I’m so afraid for my kids [and] I don’t believe anyone in government. They let us all down.” Crying, she added, “All of my friends say the same thing: If we could afford it, we would be out of Flint.”
There will be time enough to fully investigate how and why this debacle began and was allowed to fester under what appears to be ill-conceived money-saving schemes and an unconscionable state coverup . In the meantime, the children of Flint remain in harm’s way. Protecting them should be the first priority, even if it means temporarily removing them and their families from the beleaguered city.