What’s the Deal With Public Health, The Environment and Race?

Hello All!

captured the general public's eye

Flint’s story has captured the general public’s eye

In this edition of WTD, we’ll discuss the high profile case of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan and how it connects with our community and social history of racial discrimination in housing and environmental concerns.

Throughout the history of the United States since the Industrial Revolution, the waste that we have produced from industry often has repercussions on our own people. What we have knowingly and sometimes purposely have done is contaminate residential areas where minorities live, or in the case of Flint, knowingly done nothing to easily fix a toxic system.

These stories are continuing examples of our struggle with providing equal opportunities for all people and of the large stumbling blocks that are ahead.

The Current: Toxic Lead – A Whole Generation in Flint Affected

The story of Flint, Michigan’s lead tainted water is a well known one thanks to the recent media coverage, so this will be a brief overview of events and current scenario:

In 2012, the management of the city of Flint passed over to a Governor appointed team of “Emergency Managers” whose goal was to reduce spending and make the city solvent because of a collapsing state pension and financial system. This was the case all over Michigan due to decreasing population and therefore a decreased tax base (a very brief synopsis).

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan made the decision to switch their water from the Detroit system, which gets its water from Lake Huron, to getting water from the Lake directly. While the lengthy pipeline was being built, the city needed to get their water from somewhere, so in order to save money, the city managers decided to use water from the Flint River – a river long contaminated by the large GM auto manufacturer that was in Flint. Immediately, the Flint water showed issues such as E. Coli contamination, foul smells, and strange colors.



In addition, Flint residents began experiencing health issues such as rashes on the skin, clumps of hair falling out in the shower, and developing respiratory infections.

The river water is quite hard, meaning that it contains high levels of minerals (such as Magnesium, Calcium, etc…) and has a high pH that can be corrosive to metals. The water pipes carrying Flint’s potable water to houses and businesses are made of lead or are fitted using lead solder. As the corrosive Flint River water began flowing, it started to corrode the pipes allowing lead particulates into the drinking water of Flint residents. Usually, water officials add a chemical (corrosion inhibitors) that will prevent this corrosion, but this was not done until 2015 when the crisis had gone viral. Common corrosion inhibitors include silicates, carbonates, and hydroxides (eg. Sodium Hydroxide, NaOH). Important note: adding these chemicals is a FEDERAL REQUIREMENT and it was IGNORED. The corrosion of auto parts at the GM plant in Flint forced the hand of GM to use a different water source.

Levels of lead higher than the allowable 15 parts per billion (ppb) were first detected in Flint drinking water in 2013. Signs of the toxic heavy metal started showing themselves in Flint’s children in preschools and homes. The people of Flint were drinking, brushing their teeth, showering in, and cooking with water that was contaminated by lead.

See? It's fine!

See? It’s fine!

Meanwhile, officials were continuing to tout the water’s safety and more sinister, continuing to charge residents full water bills. In public, water officials and the Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claimed that to their knowledge, the water was perfectly safe.

This was even after tests by started showing that lead was indeed contaminating the water. Finally, in the fall of 2015, the Michigan government declared that there was indeed contamination of the water based on very recent testing and declared the water unsafe to drink and began adding the anti-corrosion agent and distributing bottled water.

Gov. Snyder was pretending to be blind to the crisis

Gov. Snyder was pretending to be blind to the crisis

At this time, major media coverage began focusing on the water contamination in Flint heavily, and the backlash against the Michigan government from the public outside of Flint was heavy. Then, it was revealed that Governor Snyder and his team of water managers knew many months before that the water was toxic, yet continued to claim its safety and collect bills for the tainted water. The National Guard was called in and began to distribute bottled water from public areas and people from around the country began donating bottled water and water filters to Flint.

But even the handling of the crisis has been an issue. The levels of lead in some homes are so high that the filters that have been handed out are useless. Even worse has been the mishandling of logistics. People having to cross town themselves on buses to pick up bottled water at fire stations and getting filters only to find that they don’t fit their faucets correctly.

Four questions from this unbelievable turn of events:

  1. Why, when the switch to Flint River water was made, was the anti-corrosive agent not added?
  2. Why was the lead contamination, though caught much earlier, not taken seriously by the Snyder administration?
  3. Why were water bills still collected and are still being collected now that the water is known to be toxic?
  4. Was Flint’s status as an economically depressed, poor, and mostly Black city play a role in its tainted water supply and subsequent government inaction?

As Governor Snyder declared in his state of the state address on January 19, his government failed the city of Flint and he apologized. But his apology fell on deaf ears for a city having been dealt a toxic hand and calls for his resignation being shouted outside the state house. Snyder’s government didn’t just fail Flint, they deliberately let the people of Flint be poisoned and then continued collecting money for tainted water.

bottled water: cases were donated

bottled water: cases were donated

Some people have come to the conclusion that given the state of Flint as 40% under the poverty line with a median salary level of $25,000, and majority African-American, that mainly voted for Governor Snyder’s opponent, that the city had little political clout. The city, because of financial issues, was being run under the auspices of un-elected officials who made the ultimate decision to switch to the Flint River water which led to the catastrophic results of water contamination and subsequent cover-up by the state.

Many lawsuits have since been drawn up against the state and an investigation by the justice department is underway to unravel what the state knew and to find those responsible. The future repercussions may be incalculable as a whole generation of young children in Flint are growing up with irreversible damage to their health and futures.

What’s So Bad About Lead?Water Contamination Crisis In Flint, Michigan

Lead is a neurotoxin, meaning that the heavy metal damages the nervous system in the body. In addition, lead can also negatively affect the kidneys and red blood cells. This is felt particularly in young children whose brains are developing at rapid rates and for pregnant women who are carrying a fetus or developing child. Development and growth can be stunted permanently by significant lead exposure. It can cause irritability, aggression, attention deficit, slow cognitive abilities,  and slow development that is irreversible. In addition, lead exposure can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, anemia, and hearing problems.

The original safe level for drinking water was set at 50 ppb in 1991 under the Lead Copper Rule that is part of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, but has since been amended to 15 ppb as an “Action Level” where if the level is at 15 ppb or above, action must be taken to reduce lead levels. There is NO safe level of lead that can be consumed especially for children as the possible effects can have such devastating consequences.

Corroded lead pipe

Corroded lead pipe

As the New York Times recently reported, Flint is not the only place in the country where lead contamination of drinking water is a big issue. Many counties are dealing with older systems that use lead pipes are faced with funding shortfalls, and are seeing rising numbers of cases of lead in their people’s drinking water.

Have environmental toxins played a major role in shaping community development and causing action? Has environmental justice been an issue that showcases our fractured social history in the U.S.?

Let’s take a look at some examples from history that exemplify the correlation of race and poverty to environmental contamination and public failure of protection.

Environmental Contamination and Race: A Startling Connection

The events of the past and the data from them is clear enough to show definitively that people of color in the U.S. are more likely to live in areas exposed to toxic contamination and that many incinerators, trash dumps, toxic waste areas and industrial activity has been deliberately located in neighborhoods with people of color. The research done so far points to deliberate policy decisions on housing and segregation as major factors and not to market driven forces as reasons behind the disproportionate impact on minorities.

Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill

Rev. Ben Chavis, right, raises his fist as fellow protesters are taken to jail at the Warren County PCB landfill

The oft-cited catalyst for the Environmental Justice movement is the case of a landfill to hold PCBs (poly-chlorinated bi-phenyls) in Warren County, North Carolina from 1982.  The landfill was chosen to be placed in the community of Afton which was 84% black and who primarily owned their own homes and operated single wells for water. Despite vehement opposition because of the possibilities of water contamination, the landfill went ahead as planned and demonstrations followed with hundreds of protesters arrested.

A Department of Defense depot in Memphis, Tennessee operated between 1942 – 1997 is situated very near many residential homes and schools (some within 100 yds) in communities that are predominately black. The depot drained toxic lead, PCBs, arsenic, chromium, and mercury in to the air and water. Many incidents of cancer and endocrine system diseases have resulted which many residents say have been ignored despite the efforts of clean up of the site since 1992 when the site was designated a superfund site by the EPA.

The trash incinerator in Miami known as "Old Smokey"

The trash incinerator in Miami known as “Old Smokey”

In the segregated black and Bahamian immigrant neighborhood of Coconut Grove in Miami, a trash incinerator was built in 1925 adjacent to neighborhood houses and local schools. The smoke stack known as “Old Smokey” belched black smoke and toxic chemicals from the trash it was burning into the air and contaminated the water and soil of the surrounding areas for 45 years until being shut down in 1970.

Despite its closure, exposure to the toxic area was not tracked and officials kept their mouths shut for many years until the information went public in 2011. The testing of soil in present day parks and schools continues but the repercussions have been permanently damaging. Clusters of cancer cases in the neighborhood seemed to be a mystery until the revelation of the contamination was made known.

These are but three of the cases of neighborhoods of color being disproportionately affected by the placement or location of waste dumps or toxic pollutants. The data collected by reports since the 1970s confirms the pattern is not isolated to a few cases.

A study conducted shortly after the Warren County protests by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice found that 40% of the estimated capacity of hazardous waste sites were located in primarily black zip codes and that race was the predominant factor in the location of these sites – even when income was factored out, race was the largest factor, signifying that the phenomenon was not market driven.screenshot-www.ase.tufts.edu 2016-02-13 12-28-40

A more recent study in Massachusetts in 2002 found that communities of color and low income communities are home to more hazardous waste sites and facilities and experience higher exposure to lead from paint or soil contamination. In Massachusetts, cumulative exposure in low income communities in 3 – 4 times higher than in other communities.

A California study from 2001 found strong links between race/ethnicity and exposure to toxic air pollutants. In Los Angeles schools, the researchers found that minority students suffered the most air pollution exposure and linked this exposure to poorer achievement in schools after factoring out income level and family education background.

Another 2001 study focused only in Los Angeles county researched the location of high capacity toxic waste storage facilities and found a positive correlation between minority community percentage and location of the facility. That is, the facilities were located disproportionately in minority communities.screenshot-www.cjtc.ucsc.edu 2016-02-19 10-52-41

The same study also found little evidence for the “Minority Move-In” hypothesis that suggests that location of waste areas and minority communities is market driven – meaning that since the area has a toxic landfill, the housing market is cheaper and attracts folks with lower incomes (which are more likely to be minority). Interestingly, the researchers of the LA study found a negative correlation for minority-move in, meaning that once a facility was installed, minority groups were less likely to move in.

The study’s central lesson: “Minorities attract TSDFs (toxic waste storage disposal facilities), but TSDFs do not generally attract minority residents.”

A 2004 study in Alabama found that of 29 garbage dumps considered in the study, 20 were in areas that were primarily African-American, low income, or both.

Most recently, a report from 2014 on Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) pollutant exposure found that there is a large disparity of exposure between white and non-white populations in the U.S. The study found that non-whites experience (4.6 ppb) 38% higher exposure levels of NO2 from pollution than whites do. NO2 is a pollutant mainly emitted from the burning of fossil fuels and from combustion engines of automobiles.

The Health Impact from Environmental Injustice

The disproportionate locale of pollution and toxic dumping sites in areas where minority groups live in the United States has had a significant impact on public health. Higher rates of asthma, incidents of cancer, and certain learning disabilities in communities of color are all correlated with toxin exposure from waste sites, incinerators, and dumps.

asthma mortality rates: black vs. white

Asthma mortality rates: black vs. white

One of the consequences of exposure to air pollution is an increase in asthma, a respiratory condition that if untreated can lead to serious issues or death. According to the American Lung Association, the hospitalization rate for asthma is three times as high for black children than white children and emergency room treatment is four times as high, and death rates for asthma are six to ten times as high for black children aged 10 – 14 than white children. (the high asthma rates minorities are compounded by a lower percentage of access to health care).

Exposure to toxins is also related to higher rates of cancer. Morello-Frosch and Jesdale used Census and EPA data to research the effects of segregation and risk of air toxin exposure and cancer rates. Their results showed that higher rates of segregation correlated with higher exposure rates for minority groups and that this may be impacting the health of those populations significantly.

As segregation increases, cancer rates increase, especially for Latinos, Asians, and Blacks

As segregation increases, cancer rates increase, especially for Latinos, Asians, and Blacks

Many of the toxins already discussed such as cadmium, arsenic, PCBs, and others are carcinogens or probable carcinogens according to the EPA and are present in higher concentrations in minority communities in the U.S. leading to the increased health issues and cancer rates.


Conclusion: Lack of Political Power Creates Segregation of Toxic Exposure

The story in Flint is heartbreaking and at the same time worrisome: How many other communities out there are being exposed to toxins because of mismanagement and frugality?

The explanation for why this happened, however, runs a bit deeper. The history of segregation and disproportionate exposure to toxins reveals specific patterns that the data backs up:

  • Minority groups live near and are exposed to toxins at much higher rates than whites.
  • Toxic waste areas have been located in minority neighborhoods at much higher rates than whites
  • Minorities suffer the health consequences of higher toxic exposure with higher rates of cancer from waste toxins and asthma from air pollution.

What are the explanations behind these facts and how does it connect to the Flint crisis?

limiting housing options for lower income Americans

limiting housing options for lower income Americans

Several key areas of public policy have helped to create the problem of segregated toxin exposure. The reduction in low income public housing options along with exclusionary zoning (which reduces the amount of land can be used for low income housing in urban areas), and infrastructure investment (such as reliable & effective transportation) are certainly partly to blame, but the concentration of political power from the use of gerrymandering has helped to take the political power away from communities of color.

This helps to explain the decision making on placement / location of toxic dumps as well as slow or lack of response for toxic exposure to things like tainted water.


Shouldn’t need political clout to clean up public drinking water

Although it is difficult to concretely prove, race clearly has also been a significant factor in placement of waste dumps and in slow public responses. Responses from white communities have more political clout as evidenced by Flint residents who remark that the crisis would have not happened or would have gotten a faster action in a majority white town. The filmmaker and activist Michael Moore has gone so far as to say that the city of Flint was left to be poisoned, to be ignored because it was majority black, poor, and had no political clout.

Many have attempted to explain away these issues as simply a result of the housing market and the purchasing power of the people who live there – meaning that since housing is cheaper in hazardous areas, it is simply the lower income folks who live in these areas out of their own financial decisions.

This argument does not stand up to the research and data collected which shows that race and not income is the determining factor for locations of waste dumps and toxin exposure. Lower incomes do seem to have an impact in a related arena, however, which may help to explain the data. The poor and minority groups (regardless of income) do not have as high an impact on politics because of their tax base and strategic interests. This lack of political clout therefore tends to leave out minority groups and lower income brackets when it comes to decision making in public policy.

So what have we learned from all this information? Or did we learn anything?

This article, aside from the current event aspect of the Flint water poisoning, is more of summary of facts that support a part of the growing realization for white America: that despite many gains including the leadership of the nation’s highest political office; discrimination, segregation, and unequal treatment for minority groups are alive and present. Looking at the current gaggle of Republican presidential candidates and their supporters is also clear evidence for this. While this article has focused on the issue of environmental injustice, it is part of a much larger overall pattern.

Until the next water crisis,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:


Josh Sanburn, The Toxic Tap, Time Magazine, January 2016, pg. 33-39.

Rachel Massey, Environmental Justice: Income, Race, and Health, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University

Manuel Pastor, Jr., Jim Sadd, and John Hipp, “Which Came First? Toxic Facilities, Minority Move-In, and Environmental Justice,” Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 23, Number 1, pgs. 1 – 21. 2001.

Rachel Morello-Frosch and Manuel Pastor, Jr., “Pollution, Communities, and Schools: A Portrait of Environmental Justice on Southern California’s ‘Riskscape.’” DifferenTakes (Spring 2001).











John Davis, “Most Alabama Dumps Sit in Poor or Black Areas,” Montgomery Advertiser, Sept. 8, 2004


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Disasters, environment, Health, Justice, Science, Social Issues, U.S. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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