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Last Thursday night, U.S. presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton faced off during a debate at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. One of the pivotal moments in the night occurred when both candidates were asked about the current Flint, MI water contamination crisis — an issue that has compromised the health of thousands of people after Flint city officials switched the water supply from the Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014.
While both Sanders and Clinton agreed that there has been a breakdown of local government and failure to protect the citizens, especially the young and old from the devastating effects of lead poisoning, it was Sanders who called for the resignation of Michigan governor Rick Snyder. He ended his response by posing the question of whether there would have been a more immediate and effective response if Flint, MI was a “suburban, white community.”
The switching of the water supply was an attempt to cut city spending in the majority poor community. Residents began to report discoloration in the water, and complained about the taste and odor. People suffered from rashes and other health problems. By September of 2014 city officials issued an advisory citing coliform bacteria in the tap water. In October, General Motors’ Flint plant stopped using municipal water because it was corroding car parts. Detroit offered to reconnect Flint, foregoing the $4 million connection fee, but emergency manager Jerry Ambrose did not accept the offer. As of February 2015, lead was detected in the drinking water of Lee Ann Walters, a local resident, at 104 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency — the group that monitors contamination levels of public drinking water by first identifying “contaminants that may adversely affect public health” and then determining “the level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health” — considers water unsafe for public consumption at 15 parts per billion.
E.P.A. expert Miguel Del Toral reports that the results of state testing of the water supply could be dramatically lower than the actual levels of lead in the water. A second test resulted in 397 parts per billion, and from that point on there was a pattern of inaction on the part of the officials of Flint and the state of Michigan. In December 2015, 11 months after water tested at 104 parts per billion, Flint finally declared an emergency. A month later President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint and the surrounding county. He also provided $5 million dollars in federal aid but not before tens of thousands of disenfranchised residents were already exposed to dangerously high levels of lead poisoning for over a year.
In 1974, President Ford signed into the law The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Its intention was to “protect public health by regulating the public drinking water supply.” SDWA made safe drinking water a right of every American citizen. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not specifically mention access to clean drinking water. However, in 2010, the General Assembly declared access to water a human right. An article published by the Washington Post in October 2014 reports that two rapporteurs were sent to Detroit from the U.N. to investigate “the human right to water and sanitation” as well as “adequate housing.” They concluded that the fundamental rights of the residents were being violated. “We were deeply disturbed,” their statement says, “to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity.” They also commented that Universal Declaration of Human Rights “is fully applicable to the United States.”
The widespread water issue raises the question: Was the abominable lack of oversight due to Flint’s status as a low-income, minority-populous city? The United Nations published a report The Right to Water in which it determined that “The majority of those who do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation are the poor, in both urban and rural areas. Not only are the poor less likely to have safe drinking water and sanitation, they are also less able to manage the impact of this deprivation.” The same goes for air; a study published by Scientific American shows that air contains more hazardous material in non-white and low-income communities than in affluent white communities.
The National Resource Defense Council conducted a study which found that four cities had fair to substandard drinking water in the U.S.: Atlanta, Albuquerque, Fresno and San Francisco. Fresno’s per capita income is around $20,000. Around 60% of Atlanta’s population is either African-American or Hispanic with a per capita income of $25,615 in 2014, over $3,000 below the national average that year. Albuquerque is almost 60% non-white with a per capita income of around $25,000. The cities with some of the most contaminated public water supply are populated with mostly ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged residents.
When accounting for the high cost of healthcare, safe drinking water no longer becomes a personal health issue but a public one. Low-income and minority people are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to have health issues, many of which are related to illness-causing contaminates to which they are exposed in disproportionate rates when compared to their white, affluent counterparts. While we do not know what the response would have been to a similar water crisis in a more affluent city, we can guess.