Our nation continues to marshal support for the people of Flint, Michigan, as the city rebuilds after its water supply was found to be contaminated with extremely dangerous amounts of lead. The long-term exposure of Flint residents to lead, which even in small amounts can cause grave health problems, has raised the public’s awareness of this health crisis and prompted the call for immediate and enduring action — now and for years to come.
Perhaps the most devastating consequence of the Flint water crisis is the uncertain impact that prolonged lead exposure will have on the city’s children. We know that infants and children under the age of 6 are exceptionally vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely hinder mental and physical development and produce a host of health complications, including learning and behavioral disabilities, slowed growth, poor muscle coordination, hyperactivity, and lower IQ.
More than 200 of the city’s children have already shown signs of elevated blood-lead levels, and the symptoms of poisoning can set in long after the child is no longer exposed – meaning that a child who appears well now can still face daunting health complications later in life.
We do not yet know the gravity of what has transpired in Flint. But we do know this: Flint’s children deserve every opportunity to be healthy, and we must come together to develop a comprehensive strategy that guarantees the compassionate care they need to overcome short- and long-term challenges to health.
Flint has already seen an outpouring of support from community members, nonprofits, social service agencies and healthcare providers. Organizations including the Greater Flint Health Coalition, the United Way of Genesee County and Genesys Health System – an Ascension hospital serving Flint and its mid-Michigan neighbors – are working together to maximize the benefits of their support services and develop a long-term healthcare strategy for the generation of Flint kids who might be adversely affected.
But there is still much more work to be done, and it will take all clinical resources available to address Flint’s long-term health concerns for impacted children.
Underlying the crisis in Flint are the many socioeconomic barriers that Flint’s low-income children and families faced long before the tragedy, including a lack of access to quality healthcare and affordable housing. In a city of more than 100,000 Americans — where 57 percent of residents are black and more than 40 percent live at or below the federal poverty level — there are virtually no grocery stores to be found. Together, we’re working to change that and ensure that Flint’s children are not left wanting – for nutritious food, early education and access to integrated social services – ever again.
The road ahead is long, and we cannot do it alone. It will take a national effort from healthcare providers, policymakers, civic leaders and individuals to equip Flint’s children with the compassionate care they deserve.
Even the smallest act of service can help address the short- and long-term costs of this crisis. The Flint Child Health and Development Fund – created by a united committee of residents, healthcare providers and community organizations – will be used to provide social services, early childhood education, behavioral health services and more to children in Flint. The Flint Child Health and Development Fund is so important to the local community that Ascension Michigan (Borgess Health – Kalamazoo, Crittenton Hospital Medical Center – Rochester, Genesys Health System - Grand Blanc, St. John Providence – Detroit, St. Mary’s of Michigan – Saginaw, and St. Joseph Hospital – Tawas City) has supported the initiative by donating to this effort.
Giving what you can is the single most effective action you can take to contribute to the ongoing care and interventions in Flint. You can contribute today by visiting www.flintkids.org.
Even after the water runs clean in Flint once again, its children – and our community – may bear these scars for years to come. And so we must confront the health ramifications of the crisis and support positive health outcomes for Flint’s children. It will require our foresight and collaboration to guarantee their long-term care.
Patricia A. Maryland, Dr.PH, is the President of Healthcare Operations and Chief Operating Officer for Ascension Health.