PA Has Its Own Flint-Style Lead Crisis: The Slow Burn Shock Doctrine of Right-Wing Leadership

Editor’s Update: We want to point out that the PA Dept of Health report and the Vox article state that the primary source of lead poisoning in PA comes from lead paint (chips and dust). The report does not include a full breakdown of all the sources of lead poisoning. There have been calls for years to update PA’s aging water lines, many using lead pipes, for fear of water contamination as the pipes degrade. We’ve corrected the title to put the focus on the lead. 

Most of us have watched in horror as the details of the Flint water crisis has unfolded over the past several weeks. What is happening in Flint is unconscionable and should be the poster-child for the necessary consequences of the Tea Party, right-wing, market fundamentalists takeover of State governments in 2010. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder may not have the national profile as his Koch Brother’s backed, anti-worker crusader a couple states over in Wisconsin, but Snyder is just as dangerous and even more anti-democratic than Gov. Scott Walker.

While the Flint water crisis has been going on since at least April 25, 2014 when the city’s Emergency Manager ignored environmental warnings and ordered Flint to start drawing water out of the Flint River instead of getting it from Lake Huron through Detroit’s water system. As reported in Mother Jones, Flint residents began reporting “tainted, foul-smelling tap water – and health symptoms such as rashes” that following summer. We now know that regional EPA warnings about the lead levels in Flint’s water were suppressed, a professor at Virginia Tech and a pediatrician/researcher tried to sound the alarm about the lead levels in Flint’s children throughout 2015, and the City Council (that was reduced to a ceremonial role after Gov. Snyder stripped Flint’s elected government of its power) tried without success to get the Emergency Manager and Gov. Snyder to act on the problem. We also know that Gov. Snyder and his administration knew about the problem (having bottled water shipped to his people in Flint) even as he and his staff denied there was any problem. Anyone with half of a brain also knows that the reason Gov. Snyder’s administration thought they could do this to the people of Flint – especially the children – is because most of the residents are poor and people of color (as Michael Moore so forcefully argued on MSNBC last week).

It wasn’t until some of the national media, most notably Rachel Maddow, started covering the Flint Water Crisis that most Americans got wind of what was happening in Flint. As Americans began to look for ways to help Flint residents, the filmmaker Michael Moore called for more than simple charity, he called for a revolt against the kind of austerity, free-market fundamentalism that produced the Flint Water Crisis. The damage already has been done, Moore argues:

It’s done. And it was done knowingly, enacted by a political decision from a governor and a political party charged by the majority of Michigan’s citizens who elected them to cut taxes for the rich, take over majority-black cities by replacing the elected mayors and city councils, cut costs, cut services, cut more taxes for the rich, increase taxes on retired teachers and public employees and, ultimately, try to decimate their one line of defense against all this, this thing we used to call a union.

In his interview on MSNBC, Moore posed the right questions:

How many more Flints are there in this country that we don’t know about because the media isn’t covering it, because the people don’t have a voice, because if you live here and your poor and black and you live in Flint, or Saginaw, or Pontiac, or Detroit…black Michigan? You have no say in this. Your voice isn’t heard. They’ve been living this existence for a couple, three decades now…

…this is going on. If people are poor, if they can’t buy candidates…then they are forgotten. It’s been forgotten for some time. Only because children got poisoned by a decision that the governor made, now we know these other things. And I’m here to say it’s not just Flint Michigan. This is going on across this country. Parts of this country are like Third World countries…Why do we tolerate this? We’re the richest country on Earth. If they can get away with it in Flint, they can get away with it anywhere.

And they have.

The long, slow march of market fundamentalist politicians, funded by their right-wing billionaires, has wrought havoc on all things public. When Moore warns us that the kind of defunding of public infrastructure, especially in poor, minority areas, is happening across the country he means it. Indeed, it’s happening and continues to happen right here in Pennsylvania.

Last week, newly elected, progressive Philadelphia City Council member, Helen Gym, called for hearings on the quality of Philadelphia’s water in the wake of what’s going on in Flint. Gym told the Philly Voice that she doesn’t think that Philly is Flint, but “we need to be vigilant.” Gym and City Council members have reason to call for such vigilance in light of a recent article in The Guardian reporting that “an expert told the Guardian the city’s procedures are ‘worse than Flint’ and risk putting residents’ health in jeopardy.”

As bad as that potentially is for Philadelphia residents, according to an article by Sarah Frostenson in Vox published earlier today, at least eighteen (18) cities in Pennsylvania have lead levels higher that those recorded in Flint. Here’s how she broke the news:

the rate of lead exposure in Pennsylvania is incredibly alarming. Nearly 10 percent of the more than 140,000 kids tested had levels of 5 or more micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood (5 µg/dL) — this is the threshold the government uses toidentify children with dangerously elevated blood lead levels. One percent tested positive for blood lead levels greater than 10 µg/dL.

Compare that to Flint, where state data shows the rate of lead exposure for 5 µg/dL from 2014 to 2015 as 3.21 percent. (Flint started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014). Other researchers have found that specific areas of the city have exposure rates as high as 6.3 percent. That’s alarming, but still a lower rate than 18 of the 20 cities in Pennsylvania.

Frostenson’s reporting was based upon a 2014 report by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which laid out the bad news for anyone who wanted to pay attention. But, really, no one did. Until now. Until Flint.

Take a second to get your head around this. The Flint Water Crisis is now a national issue…a national outrage, even. People are donating water. This past weekend a team of union plumbers traveled to Flint from around the country to replace pipes for free. We’re mobilizing in response to a horrible catastrophe brought about by the political decisions of a right-wing Governor and legislature. Pennsylvania is worse off than Flint.

In Pennsylvania, at least 18 cities have higher levels of lead exposure than we see in Flint. According to Frostenson’s research, Flint is showing a lead exposure rate of 3.21%. Here’s the situation in PA (Please check out Frostenson’s graph here):

  • Pittsburgh: 8.32%
  • Philadelphia: 10.19%
  • Lancaster: 11.03%
  • Norristown: 11.8%
  • Williamsport: 12.01%
  • Erie: 12.09%
  • Harrisburg: 12.16%
  • York: 12.41%
  • Lebanon: 12.99%
  • Wilkes-Barre: 13.17%
  • Chester: 13.73%
  • Bethlehem: 14.32%
  • Easton: 15.81%
  • Reading: 16.14%
  • Johnstown: 18.26%
  • Scranton: 19.45%
  • Altoona: 20.45%
  • Allentown: 23.11%

Michael Moore is 100% right – it is happening everywhere and it’s especially devastating right here in our own backyard. But our right-wing dominated legislature, led by free market fundamentalists like Scott “Tony Soprano” Wagner and Daryl “Mad Cow” Metcalfe, are making their case for even deeper cuts in infrastructure funding, schools, and the public sector as a whole.

If Flint residents are in the streets and suing the Governor for his role in poisoning over 9,000 children and the entire population of Flint, residents of Pennsylvania should be in outright revolt, organizing caravans to the state Capitol in Harrisburg, demanding an end to the slow death brought about by the political choices made by our elected officials. We should demand a reinvestment in our public infrastructure and kick these free market fundamentalists to the curb either right now or on Election Day this fall.

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1 Comment on PA Has Its Own Flint-Style Lead Crisis: The Slow Burn Shock Doctrine of Right-Wing Leadership

  1. Tom Leherer sang it 50 years ago: “If you visit Amerikan City, you will find it very pretty. Of two things you must be aware. Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.” Commrade B

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  1. High Poverty Rates Stricken 18 Pennsylvania Cities Where Lead Exposure is Higher Than Flint | Raging Chicken Press


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