Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder says if his grandchildren lived in Flint, he would let them bathe in the city’s toxic water.
And if I were their pediatrician, I would do everything in my power to stop grandpa from even thinking about immersing a child in the toxic brew he let fester there for so long. The difference between Governor Snyder and the families trying to survive in Flint is that he actually has a choice.
Consider this: If the state of Michigan was a parent or legal guardian of the young children in Flint, the state itself would be guilty of second degree felony child abuse. Here is the language from the Michigan Penal Code, section 750.136b:
“A person is guilty of child abuse in the second degree if…the person knowingly or intentionally commits an act likely to cause serious physical or mental harm to a child,” Michigan Penal Code, section 750.136b states. “[This] is a felony punishable by imprisonment for a first offense of not more than 10 years…[and] for a second or subsequent offense not more than 20 years.”
Let’s put aside the idea that officials should have been aware of potential problems when Flint’s water supply was first switched to contaminated river water some two years ago. What is not in doubt is the fact that almost a year ago, when state agencies were made aware of the contaminated water supply and high blood lead levels in many children, Michigan officials actively attempted to bury the data and refused to take appropriate action.
Though the state is finally taking action, it’s not nearly enough.
The first priority is to stop any ongoing exposure. Switching the Flint water supply source from the highly lead-contaminated Flint River back to the Detroit water system fed by Lake Huron was the right first step, but now there remains the daunting and expensive challenge of replacing every corroded, lead-leeching water pipe in Flint.
As for emergency measures, firefighters and a few National Guard troops handing out water bottles and filters are not the answer. Large-scale emergency water supply systems must be brought in, along with portable showers, much as would happen in the aftermath of a major natural disaster. Clearly, this is a job for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense, who now have the legal authority to act after President Obama’s declaration of emergency in Flint.
Second, state and federal agencies must establish systems to track affected children and support comprehensive services for any child potentially exposed to lead. Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services are headed to Flint this week and have been directed to come up with a game plan that addresses the needs of affected children.
Significant resources will be needed to ensure that lead poisoned children have access to ongoing medical and developmental monitoring. This means early, high quality pre-school and enriched Head Start programs followed by learning support services in elementary schools, along with parental guidance to help them understand their critical role in bolstering cognitive development in their children.
Hopefully these measures will help mitigate some of the damage done to developing brains affected by high levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin.
Third, as Snyder emphasized in Tuesday’s State of the State message, there must be accountability. As a pediatrician, I couldn’t agree more. What has happened to the children of Flint under his watch is devastating and unconscionable. We are talking about irreversible brain damage that may well affect the rest of their lives. This calamity was both avoidable and inexcusable.
There are countless examples of how America’s children are being exposed to adversities that undermine their health and well-being. And too many kids don’t even have access to quality health care or a decent education, both of which are needed to overcome the long-term consequences of poverty and marginalization.
The scandal that is the public health disaster in Flint reminds us that while we say “children are our future,” we too often fail to acknowledge that what politicians and policy-makers do actually matters.
Irwin Redlener, M.D.is president and co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund, a national not for profit organization that supports health care for disadvantaged children across the U.S. He is a professor of pediatrics and health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Follow him at @IrwinRedlenerMD.