The first National Guard troops arrived Wednesday in Flint, Michigan, deployed to help the Red Cross and local volunteers distribute clean drinking water to a city that hasn’t had it for more than a year.
“The Michigan National Guard is trained and ready to assist,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a news release late Tuesday. He also asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with the lead-poisoning crisis that has engulfed his state’s seventh-largest city.
But while the clean water push is welcomed by residents, it comes nearly a month after the city itself declared a state of emergency, and more than a week after the state followed suit. The governor is dogged by the questions of what he knew of the crisis, when he knew it and why – even after the problem was recognized – his office did not move more quickly to aide the 100,000 people of Flint.
“I have a degree of responsibility,” Snyder said at a press conference on Monday, as protesters continued to call for his resignation. In that same appearance, he said he first learned of lead in Flint’s drinking water in about October. But many residents find that hard to believe, citing his office’s decision to deliver 1,500 water filters in August, and pointing to a July email from the governor’s former chief of staff.
Released by researchers at Virginia Tech University, who obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request, the email is a bid by one state employee to get another look more closely into worrying reports of lead in Flint’s drinking water. There is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and lead in the blood has been linked to brain damage, behavioral disorders and jail time later in life.
“I’m frustrated by the water issue in Flint,” the email reads. ”These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us.”
Protesters disrupted the governor’s appearance on Monday, calling for his resignation or even his arrest. The state has acknowledged the mistake that led to crisis. When the city switched its water supply to the Flint River, in 2014, environmental officials should have treated the more corrosive source before sending it through old lead pipes. It did not, and the pipes leached the toxic metal, which continues to make the water undrinkable to this day despite a switch back to Lake Huron water.
Health experts say the scope of the crisis has yet to be fully appreciated by the governor’s office, which should set up community-wide programs for a population essentially poisoned by the state. Last fall, Dr. Hanna Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint-based Hurley Medical Center, revealed a troubling spike in the percentage of Flint kids under 6 with lead in their blood.
More recently, she helped MSNBC translate those percentages into hard numbers, including 200 confirmed cases and 9,000 exposures, all in kids under 6. But this is a major under count, she explained. It’s based on limited testing and it’s hampered by the fact that lead is in the body for just 30 days.
That means most kids being tested now will show no lead in their systems – although the damage remains. She said the state needs to consider the number of very young victims here to be the full 9,000, no fewer. In the most affected neighborhoods, Virginia Tech researchers found that at least a fifth of the homes had lead-tainted water. In Dr. Mona-Attish’s analyses, those were also the areas where the percentage of kids with a high blood lead level doubled or even tripled.
Making matters worse for parents, the medical course of lead in the body is slow and devious, damaging the brain in ways that don’t show up for three to five years or even longer — as the child attempts the more complex tasks of young adulthood. The lowest level of measurable lead exposure drops average IQ nearly 4 points, the doctor said, citing a recent study.
So, in Flint, the state has in effect lowered the IQ of an entire generation, she said.
But the doctor remains optimistic. If the state provides support for these kids–many already disadvantaged by poverty and violence – they could end up better off than before the crisis.
“There is hope,” she told MSNBC. “The worst thing that can happen to a population happened to them. But if we get them these resources as soon as possible they have a better future than they ever had.”