Nearly 4,000 US communities have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint

By Jerry White
16 November 2017

In an updated study, Reuters news agency has identified 3,810 neighborhoods where recently recorded child lead poisoning rates are at least double those found in Flint, Michigan during the height of that city’s water crisis in 2014 and 2015. In some 1,300 of these “hotspot” communities, the percentage of children six and under with elevated lead levels was at least four times the percentage in Flint during the peak of the crisis.

In pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, Reuters reported that the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 50 percent or higher. An interactive map released with the study shows one census tract in Buffalo, New York—a former steel and auto center that, like Flint, has suffered decades of deindustrialization—where 68 percent of the children had high levels of lead.

Map of lead concentrations in the United States

The ingestion of any amount of the heavy metal, whether through tainted water, lead-based paint, contaminated soil or fumes and dust, can do irreparable harm to children. This includes impeding the development of the brain and nervous system, lowered IQ, memory loss, hearing and speech problems, and behavioral and attention-related problems. The toxin, which remains in the body and can be passed on for generations, is also responsible for a host of adult health problems, including decreased kidney function, high blood pressure, tremors and infertility.

In the year following the switchover of Flint to water from the polluted Flint River, which caused leaching from the city’s antiquated lead pipe system, five percent of the children who had their blood tested showed lead levels in excess of five micrograms per deciliter. This is the threshold requiring immediate public health intervention, according to the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which acknowledges that there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Reuters used data collected by the CDC based on neighborhood-level blood testing results for 34 states and the District of Columbia. As devastating as the results are, they do not provide a full picture. The CDC funds 35 state and local health departments for lead surveillance. Reporting is voluntary in the remaining states, many of which do not have staff to collect data. Despite the well-known public health hazard, the US government does not require reporting and does not oversee the systematic collection and analysis of data on lead poisoning.

Dr. Kim Cecil of the Cincinnati Lead Study shows how the brain isdamaged by lead poisoning

Reuters says this is the first look at data broken down by census tracts, which are small county subdivisions averaging 4,000 citizens, or by zip codes, with average populations of 7,500. In December, Reuters noted that far from being the exception, Flint did not even rank among the most toxic cities in America. It pointed to Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River, where 36 percent of the children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning.

The newest map includes additional data collected this year by Reuters from Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Vermont, North Carolina, New York City and Washington, D.C. The newly identified areas with high levels of child lead poisoning include a historic district in Savannah, Georgia, areas in Rutland, Vermont near a popular skiing area, and a largely Hasidic Jewish area in Brooklyn, New York.

Like Flint, which has acres of land polluted by General Motors and other industrial firms, impoverished homes with peeling paint, and underground lead water mains and service lines, the areas throughout the US with the worst lead poisoning are invariably working class and poor.

There has been a sharp decline in poisoning since lead was removed from paint in 1976 and gasoline in 1995, the latter after more than a decade of resistance by the oil industry. The elimination of lead poisoning, however, is not possible due to lead pipes, residual lead paint in poor urban and rural areas, and former or current industrial sites polluted with lead.

he Flint River

“The dramatic decline in blood lead over the last several decades in the US is a public health triumph, resulting from control of lead in gasoline, paint, food, water, soil, consumer products and other sources,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University, who was instrumental in exposing the lies of state and local officials who claimed that Flint’s water was safe.

He continued: “Before the increased use of lead in paint and gasoline, lead in water was once the dominant source of human lead exposure in the United States, and it was generally acknowledged to cause widespread lead poisoning, fatalities and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Flint is yet another reminder that we must remain vigilant to harm caused by all lead sources, especially lead pipes, which are out of sight and out of mind. It is also the only government-owned source of lead, which directly affects potable water, a product intended for human consumption. Flint is just the most recent example of how this inherent conflict has harmed people.”

The poisoning of Flint was brought into the national and international spotlight only due to the courageous efforts of the city’s working class residents and science professionals like Edwards and pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She was denounced by Governor Rick Snyder’s office for “slicing and dicing” the results of blood samples.

Flint became a symbol of everything that was wrong in America: corporate and political criminality and the indifference of both the Democrats and Republicans to the plight of working people. The media, celebrities and politicians from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders poured into the town and legal proceedings were initiated against several lesser figures involved in the crime and cover-up. More than three years since the switch to the Flint River, however, nothing has been done to make the residents whole.

The new report from Reuters has been largely ignored by the rest of the corporate-controlled media, which originally presented the Flint crisis as an anomaly, until it was unable to deny the massive and nationwide scale of the problem. Far from committing the necessary resources, including an estimated $500 billion to $1 trillion to replace the nation’s lead pipes, the Obama and Trump administrations have failed to provide any significant funding to address this public health care threat, even as they have squandered trillions on bank bailouts, military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Trump’s 2018 budget request includes a $1.2 billion, or 17 percent, cut to the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


“Left” demagogy and nationalism dominate Democratic debate in Flint

Sanders pushes trade war policies


By Barry Grey
8 March 2016

In Sunday night’s debate between Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, held in Flint, Michigan, the crisis resulting from the lead poisoning of the city’s water supply served as the occasion on the part of both candidates for “left” posturing devoid of any substantive proposals.

Sanders sought throughout to use the Flint crisis as a springboard for pushing economic nationalist, trade war policies, attacking Clinton for having backed trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the normalization of trade relations with China and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the run-up to Tuesday’s primary election in Michigan, Sanders has intensified his nationalist rhetoric, seeking to channel the anger and frustration of autoworkers over mass layoffs, plant closures and cuts in wages and benefits into hostility toward their coworkers abroad, particularly in Mexico and China.

Flint, a city of 100,000 people, has been devastated by General Motors’ closure of virtually all of its plants in what was for decades the center of its industrial empire. Over the past 20 years, the city has lost 75 percent of its manufacturing jobs. It has gone from 80,000 GM workers to fewer than 5,000 today.

The auto giant bankrupted the city, with the collaboration of both Democratic and Republican administrations and the United Auto Workers union. The decision of state and local officials to switch the water supply to the polluted Flint River in 2014, and the subsequent cover-up of toxic levels of lead and other chemicals by officials from the Obama administration on down, was but the latest social crime inflicted on Flint’s mostly working-class inhabitants.

In his promotion of protectionism, Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist,” actually complements the overtly fascistic demagogy of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has campaigned in the Detroit area in advance of the Republican primary and sought to exploit the social crisis facing Michigan workers by means of racist attacks on foreign workers and immigrants.

While nominally representing different extremes of the bourgeois political spectrum, both Sanders and Trump lay the blame for factory closures and unemployment not on capitalism, but rather on unfair trade deals. This nationalist opposition to pro-corporate trade deals reflects the interests of sections of the ruling class. It echoes the longstanding chauvinist policies of the United Auto Workers and the trade unions in general, which have served to block a united struggle by American and international workers against the transnational corporations. The unions’ economic nationalism has facilitated endless layoffs, wage cuts and speedup carried out in the name of upholding the “competitiveness” of US-based companies against their foreign rivals.

In Sunday’s debate, Clinton sought to counter Sanders’ charges on trade by accusing the Vermont senator of opposing the Obama administration’s bailout of Chrysler and General Motors by voting against the October 2008 bill sanctioning the $700 billion taxpayer rescue of the banks. Some $85 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout fund was used to finance Obama’s forced bankruptcy and restructuring of the US auto industry.

Clinton presented the auto restructuring as an immense boon to autoworkers, remaining silent on the fact that it was carried out on the backs of the workers, who suffered a 50 percent wage cut for all new-hires as part of a two-tier wage system, along with drastic cuts in benefits for both retirees and current workers, and thousands of additional layoffs.

Referring to record profits recorded by the Big Three US automakers in 2015—based on a 30 percent reduction in labor costs—Clinton boasted, “We had the best year that the auto industry has had in a long time.”

While Sanders voted against the TARP bill, he actually supported the auto bailout, a fact he emphasized at a town hall event held Monday night in Detroit.

In the back-and-forth between the two candidates over their respective records on auto, Sanders and Clinton were in part competing to win the endorsement of the UAW, which has yet to announce its choice for the November election.

At one point, in fending off Sanders’ attacks on her trade policies, Clinton, perhaps unwittingly, revealed an essential function of the State Department, which she headed as secretary of state in the first years of the Obama administration. “I did go many places around the world to sell American products,” she declared, “because the alternatives were usually European, Asian, primarily Chinese products.” In other words, she hustled to secure markets and profits for the American corporate elite.

The first half-hour of the two-hour event was devoted to the Flint water crisis, with the candidates taking questions from both the CNN moderators and members of the audience. The two sought to outdo one another in expressing shock and anger over the poisoning of Flint residents, but neither offered any specific proposals or dollar amounts to be spent removing the lead pipes, making the water system safe and caring for the thousands of children physically harmed for life by exposure to the toxic substance.

Both Clinton and Sanders quickly called for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican. While this demand is entirely in order, for the Democratic candidates it serves as part of an attempt to lay all of the blame on the Republican Party and conceal the criminal role of Democratic officials at the local, state and federal level.

When asked by one of the moderators whether they thought officials responsible for the lead poisoning and cover-up should be jailed, both candidates dodged the question, saying that would be up to investigators and the courts.

Asked by a Flint resident for specific proposals to solve the crisis, Clinton said she supported the efforts of the city’s Democratic mayor and Democratic representatives in Congress. They, however, are proposing token measures that will hardly begin to address the scale of the crisis.

Congressional Democrats have proposed allocating $600 million for Flint, while the cost to remove and replace the lead pipes has been estimated at more than $1 billion. Fitch, the credit rating agency, recently estimated that it would cost $300 billion to replace lead water pipes nationally.

Sanders, for his part, quickly pivoted from the Flint crisis to his trade war agenda. In reply to a question from CNN moderator Anderson Cooper on whether Flint residents could trust “big government” solutions to the crisis, Sanders replied, “I suppose they can trust the corporations who have destroyed Flint by a disastrous trade policy which has allowed them to shut down plants in Flint and move to China or Mexico.”

He returned several times to the same theme, complaining at one point that “Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America.” He added, “Those trade policies have resulted in the shrinking of the American middle class.”

The above quote points to one significant feature of Sanders’ performance in the debate—the virtual elimination of any reference to the “working class” in favor of that most vacuous of political abstractions in the vocabulary of American bourgeois politics: the “American middle class.” Sanders’ increasing adherence to the unwritten law of official politics in the US banning the term “working class” is a sure sign of his accelerating turn to the right.

At one point he answered Clinton’s disparagement of him as a “one-note” candidate by declaring, “My one issue is to rebuild a disappearing middle class. That’s my one issue.”

Most revealing of the fraud of Sanders’ “socialism” was his omission of any call for the nationalization of basic utilities such as water and sewerage. If ever there has been a demonstration of the incompatibility of social needs with corporate control over the provision of basic necessities—whether through direct ownership or via the subordination of nominally public entities to the banks—it is in the Flint crisis.

Historically in the US, the demand for public ownership and democratic control of the utilities—electricity, water, sewerage, the railroads—was a standard plank in the platforms of socialist and progressive parties in the early part of the 20th century, and was even supported by more left sections of the Democratic Party. Sanders, a conventional bourgeois politician despite his talk of “political revolution,” opposes nationalization, in line with his defense of capitalist private ownership of the banks and corporations.

The Flint water crisis and the US elections


7 March 2016

On the eve of Tuesday’s Michigan primary election, a critical contest in the presidential campaigns of both the Republican and Democratic parties, the lead poisoning of the water supply in Flint has emerged as a central political issue. The water crisis was placed at the center of Sunday night’s televised debate between Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, held on the Flint campus of the University of Michigan.

The horrific consequences for Flint residents of the decision by state and local officials to switch the city’s water source to the highly polluted Flint River has become a focal point for the indignation of working people throughout the country angered by deteriorating living conditions and a political system that is contemptuous of their needs. Thousands of children have been permanently affected by the lead poisoning and at least ten people have died as a result of diseases linked to the crisis.

Overwhelming evidence has emerged showing that officials were well aware of the dangers posed to the city’s 100,000 residents both before and after the decision was made on the water supply. The political representatives of the ruling class, including the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, ignored the signs that the water had been poisoned and sought to suppress complaints and protests by the city’s largely working class residents. Emails and other documents released in recent weeks provide ample evidence of a criminal conspiracy that resulted in sickness and death.

When it was no longer possible to conceal the crisis, those responsible, from Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder to the top executives at General Motors, which long ago abandoned the city and left behind nothing but empty lots and toxic waste, launched a cynical charade of hand-wringing and crocodile tears. Aided by the national media, the central aim of this campaign has been to conceal the real causes of the crisis and make sure that those responsible evade any accountability.

None of these issues were seriously addressed in Sunday’s debate. Clinton and Sanders both sought to demagogically exploit the outrage of Flint residents. Both are long-time political functionaries of the American ruling class whose promises to rebuild the city’s infrastructure and address the long-term health and educational needs of Flint children will quickly be scrapped once the election is over.

Each of the Democratic presidential aspirants sought to lay blame solely on Governor Snyder and the Republicans. This is absurd, since the mayor, the emergency manager and the City Council members were all Democrats, as was Snyder’s treasurer, Andy Dillon. Moreover, the decimation of the nation’s infrastructure is the result of a bipartisan policy pursued over many decades and accelerated under the Obama administration. Capital expenditures on transportation and water infrastructure fell 23 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2003 and 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

After the 2008 financial crash, the administration deliberately starved states and municipalities of federal funds, reducing non-military discretionary spending as a percentage of national gross domestic product to its lowest level since 1961. The federal Centers for Disease Control has cut state grants for lead poisoning prevention by more than half since 2009, and the share of children younger than six who are tested has fallen by more than 40 percent.

Leading up to Sunday’s debate, Clinton sought to exploit the Flint crisis for electoral gain, attributing the situation to “institutional racism.” This attempt to cast the water crisis as a racial issue flies in the face of reality, including the facts that over 40 percent of the city’s residents are white and most of the local politicians involved in the conspiracy are African-American. The purpose of this ruse is to provide cover for the Democratic Party and conceal the fundamental economic and class issues underlying the crisis.

The self-described “democratic socialist” Sanders used the debate to promote economic nationalism and trade war policies. On the eve of the event, Sanders penned an op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press that blamed the Flint crisis not on capitalism, but on “unfair trade policies” that helped companies ship jobs to lower-wage countries.

“Long before Flint’s children were poisoned by contaminated drinking water,” he wrote, “the city was poisoned by disastrous trade policies that allowed GM to eliminate more than 72,000 jobs and move several factories to Mexico.” Sanders criticized Clinton for backing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), special trade status with China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other “disastrous trade deals” with Vietnam, Colombia and Panama.

This is a reactionary attempt to divert working class anger over mass layoffs and factory closures away from the American corporate elite and its political system and pit US workers against their class brothers and sisters in Canada, Mexico, Europe, China and Japan.

The nationalist policies promoted by Sanders complement the anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia of Republican front-runner Donald Trump. In a rally in the Detroit suburb of Warren last Friday, Trump said he would call the head of any American company that moved a factory to Mexico and threaten him with a 35 percent tariff. “Within 24 to 48 hours,” Trump declared, the CEO of Ford would be on the phone to say “they’ll move back.”

A New York Times article yesterday noted that Trump had a “rust-belt strategy” of exploiting the economic insecurity of workers in manufacturing states like Michigan, Ohio and Illinois to deliver the normally Democratic states to the Republicans in the November election.

Sanders is similarly working to direct social opposition along channels that serve the political aims of the American ruling class, which is seeking to prevent a further erosion of its global economic position by means of militarism and war.

Sanders’ positions are carefully pitched to the rhetoric employed by the trade unions to divide the working class and subordinate it to the interests of US corporations. The United Auto Workers (UAW), the United Steelworkers and other unions have long used economic nationalism to divide the international working class and suppress the resistance of American workers to layoffs, wage cuts and speedup. The city of Flint is littered with the catastrophic results of this reactionary policy. One can still see rusting UAW signs outside of the parking lots of empty factories that read “No foreign imports.”

Nothing could more clearly expose the fraud of Sanders’ socialist pretensions. If the case for real socialism is to be made anywhere, it is in Flint. The water crisis in the city—like Hurricane Katrina, the financial crash of 2008 and the BP oil spill—has revealed certain fundamental realities of American capitalist society. Everything is done to serve the interests of the corporate and financial elite, who are rewarded for their crimes with bank bailouts, deregulation and tax cuts, while workers and their families see their schools and basic services destroyed, their pensions looted and their wages and living standards decimated.

In opposition to the pro-capitalist and nationalist program of Sanders and the entire political establishment, what is needed is the political mobilization of the working class as an independent force to break the stranglehold of the corporate and financial aristocracy over society. The obscene fortunes of the billionaires must be seized and utilized to help meet the needs of society, including the rebuilding and modernization of basic infrastructure. The auto industry and all of the major corporations and banks must be nationalized under the collective and democratic control of the working class. This must be part of the socialist reorganization of the US and world economy to ensure the social rights of all workers—to good-paying and secure jobs, safe and clean water, and a future for the next generation that is free of poverty, inequality and war.

Jerry White