For months, worried parents in Flint, Mich., arrived at their pediatricians’ offices in droves. Holding a toddler by the hand or an infant in their arms, they all have the same question: Are their children being poisoned?
To find out, all it takes is a prick of the finger, a small letting of blood. If tests come back positive, the potentially severe consequences are far more difficult to discern.
That’s how lead works. It leaves its mark quietly, with a virtually invisible trail. But years later, when a child shows signs of a learning disability or behavioral issues, lead’s prior presence in the bloodstream suddenly becomes inescapable.
The Hurley Medical Center, in Flint, released a study in September that confirmed what many Flint parents had feared for over a year: The proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River as its water source, in 2014.
The crisis reached a nadir Monday night, when Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency.
“The City of Flint has experienced a Manmade disaster,” Weaver said in a declaratory statement.
The mayor — elected after her predecessor, Dayne Walling, experienced fallout from his administration’s handling of the water problems — said in the statement that she was seeking support from the federal government to deal with the “irreversible” effects of lead exposure on the city’s children. Weaver thinks that these health consequences will lead to a greater need for special education and mental health services, as well as developments in the juvenile justice system.
“Do we meet the criteria [for a disaster area]? I don’t know,” she told Michigan Live. But Weaver doesn’t think the city can receive the help it needs without alerting federal officials to the urgency of the matter.
To those living in Flint, the announcement may feel as if it has been a long time coming.
Almost immediately after the city started drawing from the Flint River in April 2014, residents began complaining about the water, which they said was cloudy in appearance and emitted a foul odor.
Since then, complications from the water coming from the Flint River have only piled up. Although city and state officials initially denied that the water was unsafe, the state issued a notice informing Flint residents that their water contained unlawful levels of trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer and other diseases.
Protesters marched to City Hall in the fierce Michigan cold, calling for officials to reconnect Flint’s water to the Detroit system. The use of the Flint River was supposed to be temporary, set to end in 2016 after a pipeline to Lake Huron’s Karegnondi Water Authority is finished.
A petition lobbying for the ending the city’s Flint River water supply garnered 26,000 signatures.