Backyard Talk

Flint, MI: A Clear Case of Environmental Injustice

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An independent panel appointed last October by Michigan Governor Rick Synder to investigate why things went so wrong in Flint released its findings last week. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force report blasted the state’s handling of the crisis and painted a picture of “government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”

While there was plenty of blame to go around, the five member panel singled out the state-appointed emergency managers who were trying to save money, the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services for their role in handling Flint’s water issues, and Snyder and his staff for their lack of oversight. According to the report, “Neither the governor nor the governor’s office took steps to reverse poor decisions by MDEQ and state-appointed emergency managers until October 2015, in spite of mounting problems and suggestions to do so by senior staff members in the governor’s office, in part because of continued reassurances from MDEQ that the water was safe.”

The report also concluded that, “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.” The New York Times reported that the panel’s report “put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease.”

According to the Times story, the report concluded that “Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.”

The Task Force also singled out the activism of local residents and credited the “critical role played by engaged Flint citizens, by individuals both inside and outside of government who had the expertise and willingness to question and challenge government leadership,” along with “members of a free press who used the tools that enable investigative journalism.”

The Task Force report does a good job of unpacking the numerous failures especially at the state level that led to the crisis in Flint and how things got so out of control. But what underlies everything is the patented disregard for the people who live in this predominately African American city. The case for environmental injustice was never so clear.

Read the full 116-page report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force and its 44 recommendations here

poison

Floored by Health Authorities Decision

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Around every corner there are threats to our health and safety.  The CDC found cancer risks from laminated flooring imported from China could reach 30 in 100,000, but didn’t think it important enough to suggest people remove the flooring.  REALLY!  How is 30 people out of 100,000 getting cancer from the flooring not considered assault with a deadly weapon?  The weapon being the flooring and the deadly being cancer.

I include the CDC/ATSDR statement to show just how inept our government health agencies have become.

On February 10, 2016, CDC/ATSDR released a report entitled Possible Health Implications from Exposure to Formaldehyde Emitted from Laminate Flooring Samples Tested by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. On February 12, CDC/ATSDR was notified that a private individual who reviewed the report suspected that a conversion error might have been made. CDC/ATSDR staff reviewed the report and discovered that an incorrect value for ceiling height was used in the indoor air model.  As a result, the health risks were calculated using airborne concentration estimates about 3 times lower than they should have been. Neither CDC/ATSDR nor the report’s peer or partner reviewers or reviewers noticed the error.

Change in conclusion for short-term health effects

After correcting the measurement error in the model, CDC/ATSDR revised the report’s conclusion about possible health effects from exposure to formaldehyde. In the report that used an incorrect value for ceiling height, we concluded that exposure to the low end of the modeled levels of formaldehyde in the CPSC-tested laminate flooring could cause increased irritation and breathing problems for children, older adults, and people with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). In the updated report, which used the correct value for ceiling height, we concluded that irritation and breathing problems could occur in everyone exposed to formaldehyde in the laminate flooring, not just sensitive groups and people with pre-existing health conditions.

Change in conclusion for long-term health effects

We also increased the estimated lifetime cancer risk from breathing the highest levels of formaldehyde from the affected flooring all day, every day for 2 years. The lifetime cancer risk increased from the previous estimate of 2 to 9 extra cases for every 100,000 people to between 6 and 30 extra cases per 100,000 people. To put these numbers into perspective, the American Cancer Society estimates that up to 50,000 of every 100,000 people may develop cancer from all causes over their lifetimes.

Our recommendations remain the same.

Although the conclusions in the report have been revised, CDC/ATSDR recommendations to protect health have not; we continue to recommend that people with the affected laminate flooring:

  • Reduce exposure -  We provide information on how residents can reduce exposure to sources of formaldehyde in their homes
  • See a doctor for ongoing health symptoms – We recommend that residents who have followed the steps to reduce formaldehyde in their homes and still have ongoing health symptoms (breathing problems or irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat) only in their homes, should see a doctor to find out what is causing the symptoms.
  • Consider professional air testing if irritation continues.

What happened to the acceptable cancer risk of 1 in a million?

As you can see the agency tried to justify their inaction by saying that the American Cancer Society estimates that up to 50,000 of every 100,000 people may develop cancer in their lifetime.  That number  may be higher than that if people are also exposed to this flooring.  This outrageous cancer estimate proves that we need to remove these cancer threats as they are found and not just suggest that people see a doctor for ongoing symptoms