The Flint Water Crisis: have lessons from history been forgotten (again)?

‘That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons that history has to teach’Aldous Huxley

The Flint Water Crisis, which started in 2014 and is still on-going, is a contemporary example of where lessons from history have been ignored.  Briefly, the authorities in Flint, Michigan, decided to replace the water supply from Lake Huron with the less expensive water from the Flint River. Unfortunately, the Flint River was heavily polluted and this led to Legionnaire’s disease and lead poisoning among residents using the water supplied by lead pipes. Of particular concern is the expert opinion that almost 9,000 Flint children are at risk of developmental difficulties and long-term conditions due to lead poisoning. The authorities have been heavily criticised for not testing the safety of the Flint river water in advance and for the delays in both accepting that there was a problem, and in implementing the changes necessary to supply safe water. The crisis has sparked intense political and media debate and several prosecutions are pending.

 

Image 1: Gums and tongue from a case of lead poisoning. Credit: St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Collection.

In the nineteenth century, several reports of lead poisoning secondary to lead pipes in Britain and the USA appeared in the medical literature and the popular press. The problem in Britain was widespread but particularly evident in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland. In Sheffield, the problem was first reported in 1885 by the Medical Officer of Health and was traced to the water from one reservoir that corroded lead supply pipes and lead-lined cisterns, hence contaminating the domestic water supply. The resistant Sheffield Water Company only agreed to add lime to the water after a public inquiry in 1890. Of even greater concern is the shocking 120 year delay in accepting that lead poisoning in Glasgow was due to a combination of the water supply from Loch Katrine and lead supply pipes.

Could the Flint water crisis happen again? Yes, sadly it could, and the words of Huxley resonate strongly here. But, if we listen to the lessons of history, and learn from them, such needless harm can be prevented.

 

Further Reading

  • Anna Clark, ‘Nothing to worry about. The water is fine,’ The Guardian.17thJuly 2018, accessed 24/1/19. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/03/nothing-to-worry-about-the-water-is-fine-how-flint-michigan-poisoned-its-people.
  • Mona Hanna-Attisha et al, ‘Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated with the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response,’ Am J Public Health.Feb 2016.106(2): 283-90.

 

Mike Collins

 

 

Posted in medical history.

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