Last Friday (October 12), mayors from across the United States convened in Flint to discuss the urgent—and spreading—crisis of water contamination in the country. At the United States Conference of Mayors meeting, officials shared information on water technology, management methods and financing initiatives for water infrastructure developments. In addition, Flint mayor Karen Weaver updated attendees on the state of the water in Flint, including the ongoing replacement of the city’s lead and galvanized steel pipes.
The Flint water crisis was prompted by an April 2014 decision to switch the majority-Black city’s water source from the Great Lakes Water Authority to the Flint River. It resulted in a doubling of the percentage of Flint children with elevated levels of lead in their blood. In addition, there was a decrease in fertility and an increase in infant deaths as a result of the lead. Among the fatalities were 12 people who died from Legionnaire’s Disease linked to the toxic water. Approximately another 90 residents contracted it and lived—making it the third largest outbreak of Legionnaire’s in United States history. Per Rewire.News:
Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a waterborne bacteria called Legionella pneumophila. The bacteria exists naturally in freshwater systems but becomes a problem when it is can grow and multiply. Warm water with depleted levels of disinfectant foster that growth, and people get sick by inhaling mist or vapor from contaminated water systems.
As Flint officials attempt to investigate and address the cases of Legionnaire’s Disease, there has been reported resistance. Pamela Pugh, the city’s chief public health advisor, told Rewire.News that she has been barred from attending some state meetings.
“Mayor [Karen] Weaver and the administration recognizes that our residents still live with the devastation of what has happened and fear of the unknown impacts. There is no safe level of lead to consume and very little information on the impact of the biological pathogens they were exposed to, so those that were exposed are left wondering what this means for themselves and their children,” she said in an email.
As local officials focus on Flint, Ruth Etzel, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Children’s Health Protection, alleges that the federal government is doing little to protect children nationwide from lead in water and other environmental hazards. Reports ThinkProgress:
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, lead to calls for a national strategy for protecting children from lead poisoning. But when President Donald Trump took office, the message at the EPA was that no new regulations would be considered to help children avoid lead contamination, Etzel said in an interview with CBS News broadcast on Monday.
Etzel is a pediatrician and epidemiologist with 30 years of experience in children’s environmental health. She joined the EPA in 2015 under President Barack Obama. In her position, she is meant “to protect children from hazards in the environment,” according to the agency’s website.
It is not only Flint that has had dangerous concentrations of lead in its water. High levels of lead and arsenic have been found in the soil and water of residences in East Chicago, Indiana, a predominantly Black and Latinx city of nearly 30,000.
Etzel chose to give the interview (which aired October 15) to CBS This Morning after being placed on administrative leave in September without being given a clear reason why.
When reached for comment, the EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson reportedly said in a statement to CBS News that Etzel—who is not facing disciplinary action and still receives pay and benefits—“was placed on leave to give the agency the opportunity to review allegations about the director’s leadership of the office.”
But Etzel maintains it is because they want to silence her. She said that she will accomplish her mission of protecting children through her work—or by getting the message directly to parents through the media. She told CBS This Morning, “My sense is that the new government has absolutely no intention of taking any action towards seriously changing lead in children’s environments. It basically means that our kids will continue to be poisoned. It basically means that kids are disposable. They don’t matter.”