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The lessons of Flint

It's been nearly two years since residents of Flint, Mich., began noticing that the water from their taps was brown and carried a foul odor. People got rashes and sores from drinking it. Some people's hair fell out, others threw up after swallowing it. Worst of all, doctors noticed an alarming rise of lead levels in the blood of city youngsters — enough to cause irreversible brain damage and other serious health and behavioral problems.

Yet it wasn't until last month that state officials in Michigan, who had taken over managing the community's water supply after the city fell into receivership in 2011, finally stopped insisting that the people of Flint — a majority black city where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — were all crazy and that their water was perfectly safe. Until then, their advice had been, more or less, "Drink up, and stop complaining!"

Now, with the release last week of hundreds of emails detailing state officials' responses to citizens' complaints about the situation, it turns out that the water in Flint was anything but safe. In fact, not only wasn't it safe, but it contained enough toxic chemicals to melt the lead solder out of the city's ancient water pipes and poison the drinking water in a city of 100,000 residents. Worst of all, state officials appear to have known about the problem all along, yet they did nothing. Given the state's indifference to the alarms that had been raised over the safety of Flint's water supply, it took some gall on the part of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to ask President Barack Obama on Wednesday to declare the city a federal disaster area.

Mr. Snyder, a Republican who had campaigned on a pledge to reduce state spending, no doubt regretted his administration's decision to stop buying Flint's drinking water from the nearby city of Detroit in favor of less expensive water from the Flint River. In doing so, state officials apparently failed to factor in the cost of treating the new water supply to remove the dangerous chemicals it contained, and they also appear to have given little more than lip service to E.P.A. standards and procedures designed to ensure it was safe to drink. The state may have thought that by skimping on safety it could save money. Quite the contrary.

No one can doubt that a similar public health crisis would never have been allowed to happen in Grosse Pointe, Forest Hills, West Bloomfield or other more affluent Michigan communities. A poisoned water supply and public officials who refuse to lift a finger to do anything about it are part of the price Flint residents pay for being poor and black. It is a condition that makes them socially invisible to most Americans until some telegenic disaster momentarily captures the short attention span of a distracted nation as it plays out on the endless loop of 24-hour cable TV news. Then the networks move on, and things go back to the way they were.

That's what happened in 2005 in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when some 30,000 people sought refuge in the city's Superdome without adequate food, water, medical supplies, beds or blankets. And it's what's happened, so far at least, in Baltimore after the riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody last year. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra director Marin Alsop took a lot of heat recently for suggesting to a BBC interviewer that it may have taken that explosion of outrage to jolt people out of their complacency over the conditions that led to violence. But her comments would be a familiar story to the residents of Flint and scores of other poor, minority communities like it across America. It takes a catastrophe before we notice the slow poisoning in our midst.

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