By now, almost everyone has heard of the unfortunate series of events that have been unfolding in Flint, Michigan. Over 8,000 children were exposed to contaminated water and as a result may now experience a range of serious health problems over their lifespan. But how did this happen in the first place? How could something like contaminated water occur in the United States? It sounds like something one would expect to occur only in developing countries. Aside from being confused as to how this happened, my heart breaks for all those children who were unnecessarily exposed to toxins and those that died from Legionnaire’s disease in Flint. Some of these children were found to have high levels of lead in their blood. The physiological effects of lead toxicity are well documented and affect the development of the brain and nervous system (Tweet this). As adults, these children will be at higher risk for kidney damage and females will have a higher risk of having miscarriages, stillbirths, and babies that are premature and possibly malformed. Perhaps the scariest and most aggravating truth of all is that there is no way to hold anyone fully accountable. In other words, another Flint could happen tomorrow, next year, or 20 years from now without any significant accountability at the highest levels of government (Tweet this). News also recently emerged stating that other cities have even higher levels of lead than Flint.
In public health, practitioners often use a term called ‘social cohesion.’ It is defined as a bond that holds a group together, despite the group (at an individual level) being very different, whether it be because of background, circumstances, race, age, gender, etc. This bond can be seen through members’ common values and behaviors. Put simply, social cohesion is the ability of a community (not just a physical community) to band together and collectively act upon their collective interests and rights. Social cohesion is a concept which is very important, especially in the case of Flint. Flint has long been associated with poor health outcomes, poor educational outcomes, high crime rates, and overall disparity compared to the rest of their counterparts in the state.
The issue with social cohesion is that the onus of action is placed on the individual. In this case, I would argue that the events occurring in Flint are no worse than the Tuskegee Experiment conducted decades before. Just as people were not told they had syphilis during the Tuskegee Experiment, the citizens of Flint were not told they had drinking water polluted with lead. Just as people were not given the treatment for syphilis despite it being available, the citizens of Flint were not given clean, potable water despite the widespread availability of it in the state and the country. This sort of “environmental racism” especially affects the poor and minorities disproportionately, and as such there is no real accountability of government officials (Tweet this). If this had happened in an affluent county or city, there would have been uproar. There would have been protests, calls for action, perhaps even celebrity appeals to the government.
The quandary lies in the fact that we need to be more socially cohesive, but without a minimum amount of infrastructure in a community (such as parks, grocery stores, community centers), social cohesion cannot really occur at a high level. So what do we do?
There needs to be fundamental change to how we are viewing communities like Flint. Nearly 30% of Flint’s population is under 18 years of age. This is a young population that will soon grow and be immobilized in the same unhealthy system their parents are in now. States need to offer incentives for corporations to move into these areas (Tweet this). Studies show that food is more expensive in poorer areas because they are sold at a premium. Food is harder to access due to transportation and the time commitment one would have to make in order to go to a major grocery outlet. Housing is also of poorer quality, there are fewer banks, and there are more predatory individuals and companies oppressing the poor. It will take time, but if a gradual change can be made in the makeup of communities like Flint, they can flourish and ensure another incident like this never occurs. Just as you water a plant and watch it grow, when we provide resources to communities that need it, we watch them flourish.