I’m sure you are aware of the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan. 100,000 citizens of that city were exposed to water contaminated by lead and other toxic chemicals, and were then lied to about it by their state and local political leaders. Flint was the topic of the cover story in the February 1 Time magazine (“The Poisoning of an American City”). The story has been reported coast to coast, and in one of the presidential debates, Hillary Clinton noted the perfectly obvious, that this could never have happened in a middle-class suburb.
I won’t retell the whole story, but in essence, Flint, which is primarily under the political control of unelected state managers, made two disastrous decisions. First, in response to an increase in costs for clean Lake Huron water, Flint leaders decided to pump water from the nearby Flint River (“a sewer,” a resident noted). Second, the same leaders failed to add chemicals to keep the polluted water from dissolving lead in old pipes, also to save money. The result was drinking water with lead levels far higher than national standards. Early on, a courageous pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted elevated lead levels in young children and many other symptoms of poisoning, including anemia, rashes, hand tremors, and seizures. She persistently complained to anyone who would listen, but no action was taken until a September 2015 study found that children under five had twice the lead levels prevailing before the change in water sources.
Lead poisoning is devastating to the nervous systems of infants. It leads to diminished cognitive functioning, as measured by IQ tests and school performance, across a person’s entire life. Even low-level exposure has destructive effects. Dr. Hanna-Attisha noted, “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.” It so happens that Baltimore has also long struggled with lead poisoning due to peeling paint in poor sections of the city. Freddie Gray, the young man who died in a police van, had lead poisoning as a child, performed poorly in school, and as a result was supporting himself with petty crime and drug-dealing. That’s how he got into the van in the first place.
In a January 30 article in the New York Times, the heroine of the Flint story, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, was asked what should be done for the roughly 8,000 children under 6 who were exposed to lead-contaminated water for up to two years. She said, “We have to throw every single evidence-based resource at these kids, starting now.” Since the effects of lead poisoning itself cannot be reversed, what she was referring to was proven early childhood programs, visiting nurse programs, and nutrition improvements. She might have added tutoring for children who need it, eyeglasses, and proven comprehensive school reforms, among many other interventions.
The kids in Flint certainly deserve special attention and immediate effective intervention. But in what disadvantaged area in the U.S., or anywhere, would we not say the same? Flint is remarkable because it is acute, and because the political betrayals expose the system that disregards the needs of disadvantaged people. But the chronic problems of poverty in America need just the same solutions.
There are approximately 52,000 Title I schools in the U.S. I would suggest, for starters, that every principal of every one of these schools, and every mayor, governor, legislator, and national, state, and local education leader, frame and display Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s statement in their office:
“We have to throw every single evidence-based resource at these kids, starting now.”
And then they should do it. Starting now.