Case Study

Lead Poisoning in Flint, Michigan

July 2020 Click to read: Clean Water and Reproductive Justice: Lack of Access Harms Women of Color

In early 2014, in an effort to cut the budget, government officials switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the more corrosive and polluted Flint River. After the switch, they failed to treat the water appropriately and, consequently, the protective lining that had built up on lead pipes and connections was eroded over 18 months. Local water activists and parents’ concerns about the water problems were largely ignored. This catastrophe was not simply a result of government mismanagement — it was a predictable result of Flint’s long history of redlining and disinvestment in water infrastructure. Black women — who bore the brunt of Flint’s water crisis — continue to spearhead the movement to raise awareness about and bring material change to the conditions of their community’s water system.

The water poisoning in Flint caused undeniable harm to residents’ reproductive health. Analyzing health records from 2008 to 2015, researchers found that fertility rates in Flint dropped by 12 percent and fetal deaths rose by 58 percent after the water was switched to the Flint River in 2014. Additionally, babies who were born at full-term during the water crisis had lower birth weights. The lead exposure also increased the risk of hypertension for pregnant women and may have interfered with their choice of whether or not to breastfeed. Moreover, the health effects of lead exposure in children in Flint increased the risk of impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and delayed puberty.

Although Flint has since switched its water back to the Detroit system, the Flint water crisis is by no means past. Many households continue to be at risk of exposure given the pipe replacement work that is still in progress. Moreover, residents in the city, which is approximately 54 percent Black, are still dealing with the massive health impacts and the trauma of having been effectively poisoned at the hand of the government. As access to affordable, quality health care — and to reproductive health care specifically — remains fragmented at best for many Black women and women with lower incomes, many communities in Flint remain unable to get the care that they need.

While the contamination of the Flint River is by far one of the most egregious in the U.S., it is not an isolated occurrence. Cities like Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, and Newark have experienced similar water crises in recent years. Like in Flint, Black and Brown communities in less affluent neighborhoods are disproportionately at risk of contamination. These water crises are clear examples of how a legacy of systemic oppression and disinvestment can erupt in the present to cause acute environmental and reproductive injustices.

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