On April 25, 2014, the penny-pinching emergency managers of Flint, Michigan, started drawing city water from the dirty Flint River. Residents were quick to complain about the color, taste, and smell. The appointed city authorities responded with reassurance. A few problems had shown up in tests, they conceded, but there were ways to deal with them, and the water was otherwise safe. The foul water kept flowing.
The poisoning in Flint exposes many social failings. It would never have started in a wealthier, whiter community. It would not have gone on as long in a city that governed itself. (Flint had been under the control of governor Rick Snyder’s office since 2011.) And the proper use of science would have stopped it. Instead, science was invoked to ignore evidence and conceal truth.
Modern science relies on sophisticated measurements that require complex instruments. But at its core, science is a search for truth that rests on the evidence of our senses. Bad smell is a warning. Water is not routinely tested for each harmful chemical that might be in it—and there exists such a variety of toxins that it cannot be. Unless you know exactly what is causing the odor, failure to detect toxic chemicals does not prove foul water safe to drink. To disregard smell as “unscientific,” as the government did in Flint, is the opposite of good science.
It did not take long for more evidence of danger to turn up. During the summer, children were found to have rising levels of lead in their blood. But health officials pooh-poohed these data as statistical anomalies.
The city did check for lead in tap water, but it tilted the tests to avoid finding problems. It told residents to run cold water through their faucets before collecting samples, a procedure that lowers contamination levels. It chose to test houses less likely to have high concentrations of lead.
Nevertheless, lead-polluted water was eventually detected. In February, LeeAnne Walters, whose children had taken sick, had her house tested by the city. Despite the poor sampling procedure, the laboratory reported concentrations more than ten times above the allowable limit.
Walters’s fellow residents, meanwhile, were becoming more and more vocal in their complaints about the water. In mid-February, dozens of protesters marched to city hall in below-zero temperatures, some wearing skull masks to underscore the severity of the problem. Many of them had been suffering from such symptoms as rashes and hair loss for months.
Yet the authorities still saw no sign of a wide problem, and they took little action. Walters turned to Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who is an expert on lead in public water supplies. His analyses of her water found levels far higher than the city’s. Edwards and his research team went on to test other houses, and they found the contamination to be widespread. By that point—June 2015, after the poisoned water had already been flowing for over a year—scientists at the federal Environmental Protection Agency were raising the alarm within the government. But events moved slowly until Edwards and his team went public with his findings in September.
In October, Flint finally switched back to the clean water it had used earlier. By then hundreds of children were found to have high levels of lead in their blood—a condition that can bring life-long brain impairment.
The combination of fiscal austerity, undemocratic management, and blatant disregard for public health that fueled the current disaster in Flint makes unusually disturbing news. But the misuses of science that occurred in Flint are not new. Cover–ups of the dangers of lead, in its various commercial uses, have a history that goes back nearly a century. Alarms are raised, politicians put dollars ahead of health, and compliant bureaucrats skew tests to conceal the truth.
The early 1920s saw the introduction of leaded gasoline. The great chemist William Mansfield Clark immediately saw the hazard. He wrote to the surgeon general’s office, warning of a “serious menace to the public health.” General Motors agreed to pay for safety research at the federal Bureau of Mines.
Soon death and illness among production workers made front-page headlines, and leaded fuel was taken off the market. The Bureau of Mines—seen by its overseer, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, as a “service bureau for the mining industry” (including, at that point, the oil industry)—tested 98 chauffeurs and gas station attendants. Many had high blood lead levels, and the red blood cells of some were visibly damaged, but the Bureau buried these findings in the fine print of its report. It pointed instead to the absence of clinical symptoms of lead poisoning as evidence the fuel was safe.
On this basis, an expert committee said that sales could resume while the government pursued further health studies. The product was soon back in the pumps, but research was turned over to an industry-funded institute. Half a century would elapse before the hazards of leaded gasoline came under control.
Lead was in food as well as fuel. Compounds of lead and arsenic were sprayed on apples and other fruit to kill insects. When the New Dealer Rex Tugwell took office as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in 1933, he was shocked to find these poisonous elements allowed in food. He quickly lowered the permitted amount of contamination, but Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace reversed this order after growers protested.
The Food and Drug Administration then began experiments aimed at determining the safe level. This aroused the ire of Missouri congressman Clarence Cannon, an apple grower who chaired an appropriations subcommittee. He halted the FDA investigation with a rider in the 1937 budget. The research stopped with the slaughter of 5,000 laboratory rats at the end of the fiscal year.
Cannon had a new home in mind for the FDA’s money. At the suggestion of a lead industry lobbyist, he sent it to the Public Health Service. There Royd Sayers, who had headed up the leaded gasoline investigation, now worked, and Sayers proposed a similar study of apple pickers. Under Sayers’ research protocol, only active workers were tested. Apple pickers work on ladders. But acute lead poisoning causes “the shakes”—a condition that leads sufferers to seek new employment on solid ground. By excluding former apple pickers from the study population, Sayers ensured that the symptom he looked for would not be seen.
Things came to a head in 1940. The Public Health Service wanted to let more lead into food, but the FDA objected strongly. Paul McNutt, a former Indiana governor who headed what is now the Department of Health and Human Services, was surely aware of Cannon’s budgetary powers. McNutt ruled for the Public Health Service, and the allowable lead concentration was tripled.
These are only a few examples of how economic and political interests have distorted the science and regulation of toxic substances. But truth has a way of coming out. Marc Edwards is not the first courageous researcher to tackle the dangers of lead. The geochemist Clair Patterson rediscovered the hazard of leaded gasoline, almost by accident, while studying the Greenland ice cap in the 1960s. He discovered that lead levels in atmospheric dust had increased sharply when that fuel came on the market, just as William Mansfield Clark feared—and industry-backed scientists had long denied. This led Patterson to issue a warning of the “severe chronic lead insult” to public health.
The revelations of Patterson and others, joined with public disgust at fetid rivers and smoggy air, created a powerful environmental movement in the 1970s. Passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other protective laws followed. Since then, regulation has greatly reduced exposure to lead. But, as the response to the Flint disaster shows, this work is never done. Again and again, public health rests on the willingness of citizens and scientists to stay vigilant—and speak out.
Benjamin Ross is an environmental scientist and author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment (Oxford University Press, 2010).