In Flint, We Are Laying Tragedy on Top of Tragedy on Top of Tragedy


I mentioned yesterday that continuing to keep Flint residents in terror of their water, even though it’s now safe, is just compounding tragedy with tragedy. Today, however, a friend directs me to another example of this, from a New Yorker story about Maya Shankar, an Obama staffer who was looking at ways that behavioral science might be put to work in Flint. It starts with a conversation between Shankar and Kent Key, who works at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine:

Key shared a personal story about the son of a family friend who had begun acting out in school. The boy’s mother had come to Key for help. When Key asked the boy what was going on, he replied, “Well, they said I’m not going to be smart anyway.”

“These kids are internalizing the messages about how the lead is affecting them,” Key said….It wasn’t immediately clear what had come out of the gathering. But, as she and Tucker-Ray left for their next appointment, Shankar began contemplating aloud the possibilities. She said to Tucker-Ray, “Did you see how my eyes widened when he said that thing about the kids giving up because they think they’re going to be dumb?”

….As their last day in Flint drew to a close, Shankar and Tucker-Ray hurried to a final meeting. They had arranged to talk with a disabled Gulf War veteran and community activist named Art Woodson, who didn’t think much of the federal government. At a local municipal building, where an enlarged photograph of corroded lead pipes adorned one wall, Woodson told Shankar about his worry that local kids would give up when lead’s symptoms surfaced, or even before. “What I see,” he said, “is hopelessness.”

This is yet another tragedy. Children in Flint had mildly elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream for about a year or two. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but the effects of this are fairly modest. To put it in terms most people will recognize, it means that some children in Flint will lose about one IQ point. Maybe two. That’s a tragedy, but it’s an even bigger tragedy if kids and their parents respond to this by thinking their lives are permanently ruined. The truth is that in nearly all children, the effects will be only barely noticeable.

I don’t know what the right response is here. On the one hand, nobody pays attention unless you yell and scream and demand attention. If it weren’t for this, authorities would have ignored Flint even longer than they did. On the other hand, the effects of all this yelling and screaming can be disastrous in the long term if residents end up with the belief that Flint’s kids are now all destined for a life of misery and cognitive decline.

What’s the answer? I’m just some white guy in California, and nobody in Flint is going to pay any attention to what I’m saying. I don’t blame them. Nor do doctors want to publicly agree with me, because nobody wants to downplay the effects of lead poisoning. I get that too. I can already imagine the number of tweets and emails I’m going to get demanding to know why I think Flint is no big deal. And yet, the effects of not acknowledging the truth in a serious but sober way can be devastating. There has to be a better way.