Toxic History, Poisoned Water: The Story of Flint

Toxic History, Poisoned Water: The Story of Flint

“If you were going to put something in a population to keep people down for generations to come, it would be lead,” Hanna-Attisha writes. It is possibly the most studied neurotoxin. But Clark describes how it was embraced by America anyway, as a “key to prosperity,” added to brass fixtures and paint — “built into the infrastructure.” Children are especially vulnerable; their bodies absorb up to five times as much lead as adults, and it leads to aggression and antisocial behavior, learning difficulties, organ damage, seizures, coma, death. There is even an epigenetic impact — it changes a child’s DNA. “It’s really science-fiction comic-book stuff,” Hanna-Attisha writes. “Like the X-Men, except the victims aren’t getting superpowers. Their powers are being taken away.”

Mona Hanna-AttishaCreditMike Naddeo

For all her doggedness, Hanna-Attisha is a goofy, appealing, very human narrator — passionate about “Scandal” and prone to repeating the praise she has received. Hers is the book I’d recommend to those coming to the issue for the first time; the crisis becomes personalized through the stories of her patients and their parents, and through her horrified recollections of her initial passivity. For a year she tuned out reports of lead in the water — “a loop of white noise,” she calls it, until a friend impressed upon her the seriousness of the situation.

These books are not competitors; they are complements to each other. Clark’s book makes it clear that Hanna-Attisha’s involvement has not been without controversy. A hero narrative coalesced around her and the engineer and activist Marc Edwards, reinforcing a “dangerous dynamic of ‘saviors’ and ‘saved’ that disempowered the community all over again,” Clark writes. “What’s more, it was simply false; it didn’t sync with what actually happened,” and it minimized the roles of community organizers who first raised the alarm and who continue to deliver bottled water and mobilize. This is, oddly, an omission that Clark points out but does not really correct; community organizers are very much at the margins of her narrative, rarely mentioned and almost never named.

“What the Eyes Don’t See” and “The Poisoned City” are not just important books, they are useful — as history and as blueprint, for all those who believe, as Hanna-Attisha writes, that “the world shouldn’t be comprised of people in boxes, minding their own business. It should be full of people raising their voices” and “minding one another’s business.”

Opportunities to use these blueprints will never stop presenting themselves. This week, it was reported that between 2012 and 2016, 820 children living in New York’s housing projects were found to have lead poisoning. Not one of these cases was investigated.

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