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Flint's toxic industrial heritage

History and ethics, environmental health, urban healthJanuary 26, 2016The water crisis in the former stronghold of General Motors is a by-product of centuries of exploitation, says historian David Rosner

With the ongoing water security crisis in Flint, Michigan, says David Rosner, professor of sociomedical science at Mailman School, we shouldn't forget the toxic legacy of the automotive industry. More than a few corrupt officials, he argues, the situation of the people of Flint is a by-product of centuries of exploitation of these people.

In a recent editorial in the in American Journal of Public Health , Flint, Michigan: A Century of Environmental Injustice, Rosner, a pollution historian, reminds us of the massive scale of General Motors' operation in Flint, a city with a large African American majority. At its peak in the early 1980s, the company employed up to 80,000 workers in a number of huge factories on the Flint River. A network of suppliers, many upstream from Flint, produced components such as paint and batteries, all of which contained lead.

Last but not least, leaded gasoline engines from General Motors. In fact, in the 1920s, in partnership with Dupont and Standard Oil, the company invented tetraethyl lead, a gasoline additive that boosts engine performance and enables larger engines and faster cars that could compete with those of Ford, GM's biggest competitor.

EthylgaspumpeThe introduction of leaded gasoline did not go unnoticed. Even then, lead was known to be poisonous. There was a huge uproar in the public health community and among all of the people who saw this as a bad precedent to take this dangerous material and spit it out, Rosner says. It was one of the first examples of industrial toxins considered dangerous for workers in the factory, suddenly redefined as environmental pollutants that leak from exhaust pipes and kill us all.

In fact, in 1924, New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania temporarily banned leaded gasoline. (As a holdover from that policy, drivers in New Jersey are still not allowed to fill their own gasoline.) Meanwhile, epidemiologists conducted a three-year study of garage and tunnel workers exposed to tetraethyl lead but failed to get immediate measurements. Although no one died of acute lead poisoning, we now know that the health effects of lead are often subtle and span many decades. and exposure to lead in any amount is unsafe. For GM, however, the matter was settled; the study proved the safety of leaded gasoline.

After decades of industrial landfilling by GM and its suppliers, the Flint River became polluted. In the 1960s, Flint began buying Detroit water. In spring 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager moved back to the Flint River under financial pressure. High chloride levels in the water corroded Flint's lead pipes, resulting in unsafe metal levels in drinking water; Children were also tested with elevated blood lead levels. After many months of inactivity by state and federal agencies, Flint resumed the Detroit system for its water in October. However, many remained concerned about corroded pipes exposed to the Flint River for a year and a half.

For Rosner, the situation is a distant historical echo of a victorious 1937 auto workers strike in Flint. Hundreds of workers occupied factories for 44 days while the National Guard and police resisted violently. In his recent editorial, he writes, the water crisis is a reminder that GM was trying not only to defeat its workers, but the environment in which they and we all live.

The humiliation and physical insults facing today's children in Flint are appalling, he continues. But what's even more frightening is that this town and its children have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years.

Flint is of course not an isolated incident. Contamination from lead and other industrial chemicals at current and former industrial sites is evident across the country and around the world. For example, the last lead smelter in the United States in Herculaneum, Missouri, along the Mississippi, which was closed after a successful lawsuit in which Rosner testified, revealed far-reaching health consequences for residents (the operation has since moved to Peru). And children across the United States continue to be exposed to lead from paint in old homes, often in poor neighborhoods, as Rosner and co-author Gerald Markowitz describe in their 2013 book in detail to make war .

People ask how did this happen here, that must be an anomaly, says Rosner. The more you study this story, the more you will realize that it is not.

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