When I visited Flint, Michigan, last December, I was afraid to use the shower in my hotel room. Along with a few bottles of water, I bought an electric trimmer from a local pharmacy because I didn’t even want to use the bathroom sink to shave. The water had been poisoned by lead seeping in from pipes that came in contact with the corrosive Flint River, a source chosen by Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency managers to supply Flint’s water in the spring of 2014. That fateful decision may have been reversed by the time I arrived, but lead poisoning is forever, and I wasn’t about to make any assumptions about what was coming through the tap.
Five months later, Rick Snyder is not afraid. The water’s Pure Michigan, after all, safe enough to put into his own body, so he says, and he’ll show us.
On Friday, the embattled governor encouraged Flint residents to start drinking the tap water in their homes, water that has been noxious for the last two years and counting. Understandably, many of those residents replied along the lines of: You first, Rick. And as if this were some kind of gross-out game show, Snyder took up the dare, visiting a Flint home on Monday where he drank out of the tap.
To prove to Flint that the water Snyder’s government screwed up really is no longer tainted, the governor has since gone full double-dare. As of Monday, he is planning to drink filtered Flint tap water for 30 days. That means that until May 17, provided he isn’t traveling and away from his filtered water jugs at his office or home, Snyder will try to prove to a sickened, angry population that if nothing happens to him, their concerns are bunk.
The gambit Snyder is trying isn’t small. Exposure to lead is no joke for adults, who can experience reactions ranging from gastrointestinal illnesses, to neurological damage, to reproductive impairments. For men like Snyder, the worst-case scenario in the immediate future is that he contracts Legionnaires’ Disease, a strain of pneumonia that sickened 87 people and killed nine in Flint between June 2014 and October 2015, per the New York Times. The link between Flint’s lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ is still being debated, but why take the risk?
The thing is, he’ll probably succeed. Snyder will surely have a camera around whenever he’s taking a refreshing sip from a Flint-sourced jug, and he may look as healthy in a month as he does now. Residents will be told the water’s fine, so everyone move along now. What more do you want? You want people to go to jail for this? (Actually, that might happen: Michigan’s attorney general on Wednesday announced criminal charges against two state regulators and a Flint water treatment plant supervisor, the first of such charges to be filed in connection to the crisis.)
Snyder has apologized for what has happened to Flint, most notably during his State of the State address in January when he said, “You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here, with me. Most of all, you deserve to know the truth.” But in engaging in these kind of performative tap-water-drinking dances, Snyder not only delays the accountability that Flint residents deserve, but does so in an effort to make them look paranoid and foolish for not drinking the water he insists is safe.
Regardless of whether or not Snyder gets sick, those residents should mistrust the water. The Detroit Free Press reported last week that Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards tested the water in the city twice -- both last August, and in March. He declared on April 12 that “our hopes were that the lead levels would have dropped more than they did” and that “in our opinion, Flint water is not yet meeting the action level.” He says drinking the water is “Russian roulette.”
In Flint, that means keep boiling your water. Keep using a lead filter for the tap water you drink or cook with. Better yet, keep collecting those bottles of water that have become a signature of your city’s suffering since before the world began paying attention to you. Meanwhile, watch Governor Snyder drink that water, everyone!
What may be most offensive about Snyder’s 30-day challenge is what it says about its youngest victims. Children suffer the most from lead poisoning. It can literally stop their brains from developing properly, leading to “decreased intelligence and impaired neurobehavioral development,” according to the Center for Disease Control. And the reason why it is such an insidious problem in our lives, not just in Flint, is that those symptoms can take years to show themselves. The governor has to realize how this looks laid next to a timeline showing his administration was aware of the specific health dangers of Flint’s lead poisoning well before they informed residents of it.
Snyder’s 30-day challenge undermines and obscures the real damage of this crisis. We need to keep Flint’s plight at the top of our minds, but not like this. Lead poisoning can set families back for generations, with brain damage in the near future and lost education and earning potential in the distance. And yet, the man who caused it is now engaging in a reality television stunt. In 30 days, Snyder will want us to believe that this all is just about over. Politically and physically, it seems that the real problems in Flint are just beginning.