Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI,5) was in Chicago this weekend, where he held an open discussion about the Flint water crisis, leading to a very spirited debate on the accountability of government and the risks facing under-served communities in America.
The town of Flint, Michigan, made national headlines when high levels of lead were found in its water supply. It is estimated that up to 9,000 children could have been exposed to the contaminated water. Exposure to lead at a young age is known to result in developmental problems for children. The town is also dealing with an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease, which could possibly be linked to the lead-laden water pipes.
Abrar Quader, director of Government and Community Partnerships for the Compassionate Care Network, told Progress Illinois the issues that led to the Flint water crisis could be repeated wherever there is old infrastructure.
"There are communities like Flint all across America," said Quader. "If we don't address it from a public health perspective, it could become a national epidemic."
"What's happening in Flint, what's happening on the South Side of Chicago, what's happening in all underserved communities, there's a link. We need to connect the dots," Quader added.
Quader cited malnutrition due to food deserts on Chicago's South Side, and the effects of pollution-emitting factories in low-income Hispanic neighborhoods, as legitimate public health concerns.
"Flint is the canary in the coalmine," said Quader. "Similarly situated communities all across America are having adverse health outcomes based on social inequities."
The Compassionate Care Network has helped to send 11,000 thousand bottles of water to Flint, and is positioned to send an additional 200,000 bottles soon. Quader said that while the water is important, the children affected will also need ongoing developmental support. Having gone to Flint and seen the residents first hand, Quader says their resilience is "inspiring."
Kildee attributed the crisis in Flint to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) businesslike approach to government, drawing parallels with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.
"The Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, who apparently has a protege here in Illinois, ran for office with a message that he was going to bring government the same principles he derived his success from in business," said Kildee.
The congressman said such an approach to governing is "pervasive" in American politics right now, but he warned that the principles of business don't transfer to running government.
"In the case of Governor Snyder, and from what I understand (about) the Governor of Illinois, they tend to look at their challenge in terms that can only be explained on a balance sheet," he said.
Kildee claims the initial government response to the crisis in Flint was cavalier due to the fact that it is a predominantly low-income, minority populated area.
"Here's what I heard and here's what the people of Flint heard," said Kildee. "What difference does it make? You're poor. You're black. You're not going anywhere anyway. Quit complaining. It's only a few IQ points. This isn't me fabricating. These are the things that were being said."
Kildee said blame also lays with officials at the Midwest region of the Environmental Protection Agency, many of whom knew about the crisis for six months prior to the information going public. EPA officials say they did not publicize the information because the state insisted that the law didn't require the agency to do so.
Kildee says the EPA should have exceeded its authority on this matter and notified the public.
Illinois has wrangled with water contamination issues in the past. DuPage County Board member Elizabeth Chaplin attended Saturday's discussion and explained how suburban Lisle's water systems were found to be contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE, back in 2001.
"We were 800 homes, so it's not a lot compared to Flint," said Chaplin. "But there are a lot of parallels."
One such parallel was with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which knew about the issue for some time but, as seen in the Flint incident, failed to notify the public due to the lack of a federal requirement.