Flint's Toxic Industrial Legacy

The water crisis in the former General Motors stronghold is a byproduct of a century of exploitation, says historian David Rosner

January 26, 2016

In considering the ongoing water safety crisis in Flint, Michigan, David Rosner, Mailman School Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, says we should not forget the toxic legacy of the automotive industry. More than a few corrupt officials, he argues, the situation for Flint residents represents “a byproduct of a century of exploitation of these people.”

In a recent editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, “Flint, Michigan: A Century of Environmental Injustice,” Rosner, a historian of environmental pollution, reminds us of the massive scale of the General Motors operation in Flint, a city with a large African-American majority. At its height in the early 1980s, the company employed as many as 80,000 workers at a series of enormous factories situated along the Flint River. A network of suppliers, many based upriver from Flint, produced components such as paint and batteries—all which contained lead.

Not least of all, leaded gasoline powered General Motors cars. In fact, in the 1920s, the company, in partnership with Dupont and Standard Oil, invented tetraethyl lead, a gasoline additive that boosts engine performance, allowing bigger engines and faster cars that could compete with those manufactured by Ford, GM’s biggest competitor.

The introduction of leaded gasoline did not go unnoticed. Even back then, lead was known to be toxic. “There was a giant uproar in the public health community and among all folks who saw this as a bad precedent of taking this dangerous material and spewing it out,” says Rosner. “It was one of the first examples of industrial toxins seen as dangerous to workers in the plant suddenly redefined as an environmental toxin coming out of tailpipes and killing all of us.”

In fact, in 1924, New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania briefly banned leaded gasoline. (As a vestige of this policy, even today, New Jersey drivers are not allowed to pump their own gas.) Meanwhile, epidemiologists conducted a three-year study of garage and tunnel workers exposed to tetraethyl lead, but were unable to measure any immediate effect. While no one died from acute lead poisoning, we now know that health effects of lead are often subtle and take place over many decades; and exposure to lead in any quantity is unsafe. Nevertheless, for GM, the issue was settled; the study was proof of the safety of leaded gasoline.

After decades of industrial dumping by GM and its suppliers, the Flint River became polluted. In the 1960s, Flint started buying water from Detroit. In the spring 2014, under financial pressure, a State-appointed emergency manager switched back to the Flint River. High levels of chlorides in the water corroded Flint’s lead pipes, leading to unsafe levels of the metal in drinking water; children, too, tested with elevated blood lead levels. After many months of inaction by state and federal authorities, in October, Flint resumed drawing on the Detroit system for its water. However, many remained concerned over pipes corroded by a year and a half of exposure to the Flint River.

In Rosner’s view, the situation is a distant historical echo of a victorious 1937 strike by autoworkers in Flint. For 44 days, hundreds of workers occupied factory buildings, while being violently opposed by the National Guard and police. In his recent editorial, he writes, the water crisis is a reminder that “GM not only tried to defeat its workers but also the environment in which they, and all of us, live.”

“The indignities and bodily insult today’s children face in Flint is horrifying,” he continues. “But, even more horrifying is that this city and its children have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years.”

Of course, Flint is far from an isolated example. Contamination from lead and other industrial chemicals at current and former industrial sites is evident across the country and around the world. For instance, the last lead smelter in the United States, in Herculaneum, Missouri, along the Mississippi River, closed after a successful lawsuit, during which Rosner testified, revealed extensive health consequences for residents (the operation has since moved to Peru). And children across the United States continue to be exposed to lead through paint in old housing, often in poor neighborhoods, as Rosner and co-author Gerald Markowitz detail in their 2013 book Lead Wars.

“People ask, how could this happen here, it must be an anomaly,” says Rosner. “The more you study this history, the more you realize it’s not.”