One aspect of science-based medicine that is not covered frequently on this blog, aside from vaccines and antivaccine pseudoscience, but perhaps should be, is the intersection of SBM and public health. Unfortunately, living as I do in southeast Michigan right now, I’ve been on the receiving end of an inescapable lesson in what happens when the government fails in its mission to enforce science-based public health issues. I’m referring, of course, to what has become known worldwide as the Flint water crisis. The Flint water crisis has become so famous that unfortunately it now has its very own Wikipedia page. That is not an “honor” I like to see for my state, and I’m sure the residents of Flint, which is an hour’s drive north of where I live, would agree. This crisis provides an unfortunate illustration of what can easily happen when multiple layers of government fail in a science-based public health task as basic as providing clean water to the citizens they ostensibly serve.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, the Flint water crisis refers to the ongoing contamination of the tap water in Flint, MI with unacceptably high levels of lead that resulted from change in its water supply nearly two years ago to Flint River water. Because river water is more corrosive than the previous supply that came from Lake Huron (why I’ll explain later) and Flint river water was not properly treated to decrease that corrosiveness, the new water leached lead from old pipes. This resulted in the contamination of the drinking water with dangerous levels of lead in many homes in the city. In addition, there has been a marked increase in the number of cases of Legionnaires’ disease thought to be linked to the new water supply.
I was born and raised in Detroit. My parents didn’t move to the suburbs until I was ten years old, and I stayed in southeast Michigan until I graduated from medical school and ended up in Cleveland for my surgical residency and, ultimately, my PhD work. From there I bounced to Chicago and New Jersey. Then, in 2008, nearly twenty years after I had left my hometown, I ended up back in the Detroit area. The point of this story is that my roots in the Detroit area run deep. Michigan is my state, for better or for worse, which is why I get annoyed when bad things happen here. I particularly become outraged when a preventable tragedy occurs here, one that science told us how to prevent but the government went ahead and did anyway. It’s a horrific tale of how science was basically ignored because of politics, and legitimate scientific concerns about a policy that changed the water source for an entire city were downplayed, derided, and even denied by state officials at every level of government. The story has now gone international. Indeed, our state and the city of Flint are featured on the cover of this week’s TIME Magazine.