Location USA USA

Market fundamentalism + water = poison

Book review of What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha (2018, One World Press), and The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster by Werner Troesken (2006, MIT Press)

by Pete Brown, Detroit Workers’ Voice

These two recent books should both give pause to, and inspire, activists concerned about the quality of water in industrialized nations. The lesson everyone should draw from these books is: Don’t trust government officials when they try to placate people who have concerns; those people may well be right. Officials are elected by the public at large to look after public interests, but they are especially subject to pressure from corporate interests and the privatization drive that has intensified in recent years. Market fundamentalism is the byword of corporate lobbyists and bigtime political donors, and they insist that government officials balance their budgets by cutting back on public health and safety. Activists in Flint tried to get officials’ attention: they would go to public hearings with water drawn from taps in their homes, water that was brown and smelly, and try to complain; but officials would wave off their complaints. They would smile paternalistically and tell the people they had scientific proof that the water passed all tests and was fine. Meanwhile people were dying of legionnaire’s disease, children’s skin was breaking out in sores, sensitive people were having severe allergic reactions, and lead was building up in everyone’s body. Everyone that drank the water, that is. It turned out that, while telling the public at large to drink tap water, state officials were having bottled water trucked in for employees at the state office building in Flint. The water was so bad, in fact, that General Motors wouldn’t even allow it to touch their precious car engines manufactured in Flint. GM saw that Flint water was damaging their engines, so they switched their water source — without telling the public. The water was so bad it corroded steel engine parts; but supposedly it was fine for people to drink.

Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint and is the person who, together with fellow researchers, proved that children in Flint were being poisoned by lead. The research they conducted was groundbreaking in that for the first time the connection between lead in the water and a buildup of lead in children’s bodies was firmly established. Other researchers had established the presence of lead in Flint’s water as it emerged from the taps in people’s homes. But this wasn’t enough for state officials. Oh, no; they told people to “just flush first”: let the tap water run for a few minutes and that would flush the lead out. But Dr. Mona (as she’s known) proved this wasn’t working. By accessing medical information at her medical center, she proved an upsurge of lead in children’s bodies after Flint switched its water source to the Flint River. Later, after issuing the damning results of her research at a news conference, Dr. Mona was finally, grudgingly, given access to county and state medical records which confirmed her own research.
The list of crimes against the people committed by public officials grows longer all the time. The Emergency Manager law they passed directly violated local democracy: the state governor was given the right to take over local finances and appoint an Emergency Manager to rule a city, to overturn local decision-making and run the finances. In a referendum election the people of Michigan overturned the EM law, so the state legislature rammed it through again. This Emergency Manager circus was begun under the previous governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, but it was continued and intensified under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Snyder appointed EMs for Flint, Detroit and other majority-black cities and insisted they cut costs above all other considerations. Thus the mayor and other locally elected officials were cut off from actual decision making. All they could do was sit and watch while the EM slashed costs. The only thing not cut was Flint’s debts to the banks. So the EMs for Flint switched to a supposedly cheaper source of water, and condemned Flint children to lead poisoning.

But this wasn’t the end of their crimes. Water tests were faked, records were not kept, activists trying to get the truth were derided and insulted, Dr. Mona’s research was slowed because county and state officials refused to cooperate. Finally, when the governor was forced to admit the truth, he agreed to a number of demands put forward by Dr. Mona and local activists. Flint switched back to its previous water source, water filters were provided, and the state promised help with special medical and educational needs of Flint’s children. This is where Dr. Mona’s message of hope comes from: she did the research, she persisted, and eventually she overcame obstacles. This is inspiring to read about. Programs to help Flint kids will no doubt help; research has shown that lead in children’s bodies can inhibit and slow down vital brain connections, but an enriched environment, good food and educational stimulus can eventually mitigate mental and behavioral problems. The damage cannot be completely reversed, but it can be mitigated. But the state’s crimes continue, as now they have stopped providing bottled water, stopped giving out water filters, and state officials are trying to cut off the spread of lessons from Flint. Snyder’s new head of MDEQ – Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, which oversaw Flint water testing – is the woman who oversaw public relations for BP during its disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill. MDEQ continues its role as a handmaiden of corporate interests as it hands out permits to companies to ruin Michigan’s environment; the only difference is that now they have an experienced, suave PR expert to tell news media their story. Fracking continues, dumping industrial waste into injection wells continues, trucking radioactive waste into Michigan continues, but now they have a new spokesperson replacing the cashiered MDEQ head. State and local officials are also trying to reassure people in other cities that Flint was an exception. But readers of Werner Troesken’s book will know better.

Troesken is a historian, and he shows that lead was used in water service lines throughout the United States and Europe for about a century, from at least the mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s. Lead service lines were more durable and easier to work with than alternative materials such as steel and cement. There was only one problem: they leached lead into the water passing through them. But as a rule this was not recognized as a serious problem. It was known, of course, that lead was poisonous. But the science on the leaching of lead was not well established, and in the meantime city and corporate officials considered it safe to just go ahead and use the inexpensive material. When water tests showed some presence of lead, this was usually dismissed as “just a little.” But Troesken shows it wasn’t just a little; it was enough to significantly raise the infant mortality rate and the incidence of miscarriage and spontaneous abortion. Around 1900 women who wanted an abortion could buy black-market “famous female pills” to abort their fetus; these pills were simply doses of lead. They worked, generally, though sometimes they also killed the woman. But as Troesken shows, many cities had public water systems with tap water containing more lead than was contained in the “famous female pills.” It’s frightening to think about how many miscarriages and deaths occurred as a result, not to mention the mental backwardness and behavioral problems.

Much of the great lead water pipe disaster can be chalked up to immature science; it took time for cities and water companies to learn how to add anti-corrosive agents to the water and how to balance it with anti-bacterial treatments. But not all of it. There were numerous cases, cited by Troesken, of known lead poisoning in the 19th century, when city officials simply ignored evidence when it was presented to them. Even in this century: Dr. Mona’s book discusses lead poisoning in 2001-02 in Washington, D.C., which was covered up by city officials and by the federal EPA and CDC. The presence of lead in D.C.’s water was pretty well established by federal scientists, but no one was allowed to investigate the health effects, and those scientists were reassigned and their work buried.

The case of Flint shows how a capitalist government deals with a self-imposed disaster. Lower-level officials were cashiered, some of them indicted and prosecuted, while the major criminals – Gov. Snyder and his neo-liberal cohorts – got off scot-free. For a long time Flint residents were required to pay water bills for their poisonous water, and now they owe hundreds of millions of dollars for the “crime” of switching back to a safe water source. The capitalists demand their blood money while the state government tries to bail out of their obligations. Replacing lead water service lines will take years because the state and federal governments refuse to declare the Flint disaster an “emergency.”

Taken together, these books show the importance of public health supervision by the working class as a whole. Not only that, but the need to supervise and regulate the economy as a whole. Market fundamentalism needs to be reined in and replaced by a system that puts human health and safety above the profiteering of capitalist banks and corporations. Water activists are working to overcome the Flint lead water pipe disaster and to spread the lessons of that disaster.

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