The Big Idea: Don't Drink the Water

by Claudia Dreifus Published Summer 2016
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Flint has pushed many leaders in at-risk communities to investigate the environmental hazards around them. I know of some people in Jackson, Mississippi, who read about Flint and then went out and tested their local reservoir for lead contamination. It turned out to be OK. However, when they ran tests on tap water, the lead levels were high. I’d guess that, as in Flint, they’ve got lead-lined pipes connecting private homes to the water system. In older cities where the infrastructure was installed between 1880 and 1930, lead piping is fairly common, since lead pipes were easier to install and generally cheaper than copper ones.

“This disaster was entirely preventable ... Why would anyone allow children to drink from that river?”

There has been a great effort in recent years to revitalize older urban neighborhoods. Should lead be a particular concern to people in these areas?
I think so. We know there’s lead in the water of some of the up-and-coming neighborhoods of Washington, DC. There again, lead is probably in antiquated connector pipes. But we don’t know for sure. There’s no central federal agency identifying where lead pipes were installed. In most situations, you literally have to go door-to-door and look at the pipes themselves.

I’d say a rule of thumb might be: if you’re in a neighborhood originally built for the poor or the working class, homes there are more likely to be at risk for lead piping. In terms of lead paint, anything built before 1950 probably has it.


You teach courses in public-
health history at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Has the Flint water crisis been a “teachable moment”?
Absolutely. There’s an old saying that journalism is the first draft of history. Well, I’ve been engaging my students in that first draft. In my undergraduate course, one of our students has been following Twitter to see what people are saying about the Flint crisis. She wants to see if the scandal is expanding the national discussion on environmental toxins.

In my graduate-level course, there’s another student who is reading newspapers and magazines from the 1950s and 1960s to solve a key question: she’s trying to pin down the details of why Flint’s water supply was, in 1967, switched over to Lake Huron and Detroit. Before that, we know the drinking water had come from the Flint River. This may tell us something about the consciousness of pollution at that moment and why we should have paid attention to it in 2014. In that same class, we have a group looking at how different sources — new media and old — covered congressional hearings on Flint. They’re hoping to determine if we, as a culture, are framing that event as anomalous or as the symptom of a larger problem.

If you put it all together, we’re trying to understand, in real time, how the history of public health is being written.


Though you research and write about other issues, lead poisoning has been a constant theme in your career. Why is it so important to you?
After I graduated from the City College of New York in 1968, I wondered what I was going to do with my life. I had studied with Kenneth Clark, the great social psychologist whose testimony was a key element of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board school-integration decision. I admired him tremendously. I thought that maybe I’d also become a social psychologist, and took a job at a state psychiatric institution. There I gave tests to institutionalized children to rate their eye–motor coordination. They had none. The kids would be asked to trace a circle on a piece of paper, and they could not do it. The pencil would go 
just everywhere.

Later, I looked up their medical records and realized that many had lead poisoning. Their suffering was the result of society’s failure to protect them from a preventable disability. That understanding propelled me to study public health. Ever since, I’ve tried to use writing and scholarship to help. 

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