Kendra Outler, MD, MPH
Founder, Uzima Health & Wellness
i am flint
Flint is a sedimentary cryptocrystalline form of the mineral quartz. As a child, there were always rocks around. I liked the ones that had the purple sparkly glass-like surface because every angle gave a unique picture. These rocks are called amethysts, another quartz. Flint did not stand out, but I know it was somewhere in the hall with all the other rocks. Trailing behind my mother as she went to study geology in her graduate classes at Florida State, I would move my little hands along the display case. Like any child, my mind would make the rocks move and entertain me until it was time to go. Did you know that flint was so important for survival that people would travel or trade to obtain it? Our Native American ancestors would extract flint from the Flint Ridge in Ohio. Flint when struck against steel makes sparks.
Flint, Michigan has been making sparks for over a decade. Not being from the Midwest, the stories of Flint have come and gone without producing much heat in my world until now. The freeze that started on February 15,2021 brought temperatures that the state of Texas and Mississippi had not seen in more than fifteen years. As I called to check on relatives, they oscillated between a life of no electricity and no water or lacked both. The frigid temperatures prevented backup generators across Houston’s water system from kicking on during the power outage. Now why was there a power outage? There is a lot of finger pointing going on in Texas, however, as the old saying goes, there are three sides to every story. Once the electricity and water were restored the Houston/Galveston community still had to boil their water for consuming, bathing, brushing teeth and to flush toilets because treatment plants were also running below capacity. The purifying chemicals were not behaving as they normally should according to Carol Haddock, director of Houston Public Works. In the mist of COVID-19, the state of Texas was facing a water crisis of historic proportions. Concerns about water and water safety have the people of Texas declaring, “I am Flint.”
There is a lot of fingerpointing in Texas, however, as the old saying goes,
there are three sides to every story.
Another city struggling with water and water safety is Jackson, Mississippi. The mayor of the city of Jackson is Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a graduate of Texas Southern Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Texas. As of March 5th, fellow Mississippi residents, businesses, hospitals and jails are going on three weeks with a water crisis. The mayor stated on NPR that although there is daily improvement in the delivery of water, the water treatment system is crippled due to the storm. The entire city of Jackson is under a boil water notice. Public Works Director, Charles Williams, still says a date for full restoration of the city’s treatment plant is not in sight. The health department according to Mayor Lumumba must test the water and get passing results for two consecutive days before a lift of the boil water notice. Jackson is an old city with poor infrastructure, but this latest water crisis has the Mayor, an activist like his father, the Mayor of Mississippi in 2013, calling for an evaluation of the allotment of services in a city that is overwhelmingly Black. Further exploration of the issues surrounding equity in resources is needed because it is not by accident that Jackson’s more affluent and white communities are near the treatment water facilities and had their water access restored first, per brother Mayor Lumumba.
The people of both Harris and Hinds counties, (Texas and Mississippi, respectively) have found themselves living like the people of Genesee County in Michigan. They are living under a boil water notice, waiting on cases of bottled water to be distributed and wondering if they have full confidence in their public health and public works officials to keep them safe. They are Flint redressed. All of this in the midst of COVID-19. The hard edge of flint when stuck against steel exposes iron that reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere causing fire.
Legionnaires’ disease presents as a respiratory illness, a pneumonia, that is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea. It is undisputedly caused by contaminated water and water droplets. Unlike COVID-19 that is spread by
breathing the virus, Legionnaires’ victims must have ingested or
inhaled mist of contaminated water.
The Flint water crisis was exposed in 2014, due to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee Count. It is on record as the largest in the history of the United States. Legionnaires’ disease like syphilis, tuberculosis, HIV, meningitis is required to be reported to the local and state health officials when a case presents to a local health care community. The reason is simple. These diseases are public health threats like COVID-19 and require tracking so that we can prevent and control their spread. The spotlight on COVID-19 has revealed that poor communities like Flint, Michigan experience higher rates of death and disease. Legionnaires’ disease presents as a respiratory illness, a pneumonia, that is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea. It is undisputedly caused by contaminated water and water droplets. Unlike COVID-19 that is spread by breathing the virus, Legionnaires’ victims must have ingested or inhaled mist of contaminated water. People who are at the highest risk of dying are the elderly persons who have poor immune systems due to diabetes, asthma, and or cancer. If a patient has a good immune system, then they often times may be asymptomatic or respond well to antibiotics. The prevention is to make sure water sources in a community are free of this bacterium.
When the deaths from the outbreak were discovered, the media from around the world descended on Flint, Michigan, reporting on the injustice of the Flint water crisis. Unsuspecting citizens poisoned as the city decided to switch the water source from the Lake Michigan to the Flint River. This cost saving measure did not require the vote of the disenfranchised people it would ultimately victimize. State and local government officials smiled and even did a toast drinking the water for the media; however, in 2014 the spike in pneumonia cases and specifically Legionnaires’ disease made them mute in front of the microphones and the media cameras. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the daily news that followed, dare I say we forgot about Flint.
Flint is America’s microcosm. While we were all distracted by the events of January 6, 2021 as the nation’s capital riots gripped our nation. On January 21, 2021, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel revealed charges against nine former state and city officials involved in the Flint water crisis. The former governor Rick Snyder is facing two counts of willful neglect of duty. Nicholas Lyons, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Dr. Eden Wells, the chief medical executive both face nine counts of involuntary manslaughter and other charges. Dr. Nancy Peeler the manager of the Early Childhood Health section manager for DHHS was charged for covering up data on the lead poisoning cases gathered about the children of Flint, Michigan. Flint, like the United States Congress, declared in January that crimes against the people, American citizens, would be prosecuted.
The highest attorney for the Michigan said these cases were about justice, truth and accountability. I know the citizens of Texas and Mississippi are looking for these three elusive constructs as they gather information about the impact of the winter freeze on their infrastructure, disruption of life and loss of life. Like Flint, we will never know the names of every person who has suffered from these manmade crises. I drink my water without concern, shower and brush my teeth without fear of disease. My comfortable existence is not to be taken for granted, for I am Flint.