Early Childhood

Tick, Tock, Tick Tock: Flint’s Disposable Poor Children

America’s political blame game continues while children continue to suffer life impairing harm. The nation was riveted this week as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chief Gina McCarthy were grilled over the shameful inaction on the Flint, Michigan water crisis by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. There is plenty of blame to go around. But where is the action for the children and families of Flint? Every day we delay the damage to children and their families grows. While Congressional members were calling for accountability and resignations, water in Flint was being tested again. Recent testing at one home in Flint found lead poisoning levels of 11,846 parts per billion. When 5,000 parts per billion is considered hazardous waste, why are we wasting time apportioning blame before the problem is fixed and the poor children and families of Flint have fresh, clean water to drink and cook with and bathe in? Tick, tock, tick tock.

During the months following the governor-appointed emergency manager’s April 2014 reckless decision to switch its water supply from Lake Huron and Detroit’s system to the Flint River corrosive water as a cost-saving measure – never mind its health and life threatening impact on the children and citizens of Flint – and the delayed decision to tell residents to stop drinking the water in October 2015, the crisis in Flint has too many shameful moments to recount at somany levels. Authorities disregarded or hid evidence and misled residents who could clearly see, taste, and smell the problem for themselves and put the city’s financial concerns ahead of concerns for child and adult life and well-being. The revelation that General Motors stopped using Flint’s water in its manufacturing plant in October 2014 and told the city it was too corrosive for its car parts was a full year before authorities admitted and warned people not to drink, cook with, or bathe in it. Tick, tock, tick tock, tick tock.

The state’s quiet January 2015 late action to provide bottled water just for its Flint employees was 10 months beforechildren and families were warned. The EPA failed to act for months after it knew that lack of corrosion controls in the city’s water supply could put residents at risk of lead poisoning. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality failed to heed EPA’s private warnings for months that corrosion controls were needed to prevent a risk to public health. A state-employed nurse reportedly dismissively told a Flint mother whose son was diagnosed with an elevated blood lead level: “It is just a few IQ points. … It is not the end of the world.” No child in America is disposable. Tick, tock, tick tock, tick tock.

No blood lead level is safe. That’s what the group of doctors led by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha knew when they raised concerns about elevated lead levels they saw in Flint’s children.

Lead exposure, through water, paint, soil, or other environmental sources is a threat far beyond Flint. The EPA has called it the most serious environmental health hazard for children. An estimated 535,000 U.S. children between one and five years old suffer from lead poisoning. An estimated 24 million housing units have deteriorated lead paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. Over 40 percent of the 26 states and District of Columbia that reported childhood blood lead level results to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) national database have higher rates of lead poisoning among children than Flint. Nearly half of the states did not participate in this voluntary reporting preventing the true measure of the lead problem in America. Tick, tock, tick tock, tick tock.

Lead causes biological and neurological damage linked to brain damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, developmental delays, academic failure, juvenile delinquency, high blood pressure and death. Pregnant women, babies, and young children are especially vulnerable because of developing child brains and nervous systems. Tick, tock, tick tock, tick tock.

For the Flint children exposed to lead including 9,000 preschoolers under 6 local, state and federal help are needed right now. While lead poisoning is irreversible, some steps can decrease its effects. Michigan’s Governor Snyder failed horribly in his response to the crisis, but has now proposed funding for safe drinking water, food and nutrition, physical, social and educational enrichment programs, and water bill relief. Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) approved Governor Snyder’s request for a Medicaid and CHIP waiver from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to raise income eligibility standards to enable 15,000 more pregnant women and children in Flint to receive program benefits. Approximately 30,000 current Medicaid beneficiaries in the area also are now eligible for expanded services under this new waiver agreement. Thanks to a letter from Michigan Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and Representative Dan Kildee, HHS has also expanded funding to enable Flint’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs to serve every eligible child. These programs will now provide comprehensive early learning, health, and family well-being services to 1,011 Head Start children and 166 Early Head Start children in the city of Flint.

I and so many others are beyond angry that the lead in the water in Flint would have been addressed much more quickly if the majority of the child victims had not been poor and Black. In Flint 56 percent of the population is Black and 60 percent of its children live in poverty. Even though important progress has been made over the years in reducing lead levels in the U.S., Black children remain disproportionately at risk. A 2013 CDC study showed that twice as many Black as White children had elevated blood levels.

Children and families everywhere would benefit immediately from stronger, clearer and consistent national standards for measuring, monitoring, and reducing lead exposure that are enforced. The incalculable child harm from lead poisoning should be reason enough to act now with great urgency and persistence. And the nation’s bottom line would benefit too. Every dollar invested to decrease lead hazards yields an estimated return of $17:1 to $221:1. These cost benefits exceed the return on vaccines long considered one of the most cost-effective public health interventions.

These much needed and overdue actions for children that so many callous public officials failed to take are urgently needed today. Flint’s poor children, sacrificial canaries in the coal mine, must be helped and all children in America must be prevented from suffering their fate. No child in America is disposable. A child has only one life to live and it is today. Tick, tock, tick tock, tick tock.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.