In his 1971 song, “Save The Children,” Marvin Gaye pleaded that we should consider protecting our children’s lives because they are our future: “Little children today…Are really gonna suffer tomorrow…What a shame…Such a bad way to live”
Gaye’s classic was released just six years before lead paint was banned nationwide in response to children having seizures and dying.
Nearly 50 years after the lead paint ban, Black children across the U.S. continue to suffer from lead exposure more than other groups. With lead being found in pipes, faucets, and drinking fountains, Gaye’s lyrics still ring true.
His plea might be on the minds of community members in Benton Harbor, Michigan, an 85% Black town of 9,000 residents — 45% of whom live in poverty — located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
“Segregation, disinvestment, and concentrated poverty — none of which is a historic accident, but a purposeful strategy — has caused generations of people in Benton Harbor to suffer,” Anna Clark, a Detroit-based journalist and author of “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” told PBS NewsHour in fall 2021.
And like Flint, its lead-poisoned neighbor 200 miles northeast, Benton Harbor is also experiencing the effects of a toxic water supply.
Now Benton Harbor residents are taking legal action by suing government officials — including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad.
Carl Edwards, an attorney representing the residents, told Word In Black the community wasn’t notified of the contamination when it was first discovered in 2018.
The residents say officials allowed them to continue to drink the water even though they were aware of the issue.
Edwards says city and state officials violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by failing to properly respond to the pollution.
“Those homes have to be notified that you have a public water health crisis. Schools have to be notified. Hospitals are supposed to be notified. Doctors’ offices are supposed to be notified,” Edwards says. “And a number of other facilities are to receive public notice that there is lead in the water supply if it hits this lead action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). None of that was done on any mass basis.”
Black children who are impoverished — like those living in Benton Harbor — are two times more likely to have high levels of lead in their bodies than poor white or Hispanic kids, according to a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
In Flint, which is also a predominantly Black and low-income city, lead contamination began after the city’s water supply was changed from Lake Huron to the contaminated Flint River in 2014.
The consequences were horrific — an estimated one-in-four children experienced lead poisoning after the change.
Meanwhile, Benton Harbor’s water supply has tested over the federal lead action level of 15 ppb for the last three years.
In a recent test, its lead levels finally fell below those rates, according to The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
In October 2021, Whitmer committed to removing lead service lines in Benton Harbor over the course of 18 months. Over 70% have been replaced with copper lines to date.
“This is positive news and an indication that Benton Harbor’s drinking water system is remaining stable while the city accelerates this critical infrastructure work,” Eric Oswald, director of EGLE’s Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division, said in a statement.
About the progress, Muhammad said in the statement, “this is a significant step forward for our community as we work to ensure Benton Harbor has access to safe drinking water…We appreciate the support and unwavering commitment of the State of Michigan and EPA as we work together to move Benton Harbor forward.”
The statement notes that for people in Benton Harbor “there is no change in the current guidance for residents to use filtered or bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods, and mixing powdered infant formula.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “no level of lead exposure or lead in the body is safe for children,” who are especially vulnerable to lifelong health effects.
While adults can experience negative health effects, too, children under age 6 are at risk for brain and nervous system damage, slow growth and development, learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech issues, and trouble focusing in school.
Edwards says when he accepted the Benton Harbor Water Council’s request to investigate the issue, he began conducting interviews and was shocked by what he saw.
“One of the things that was startling to us was the number of children who appeared to have all kinds of cognitive, behavioral, impulse control issues. And anyone that has the slightest familiarity with lead knows that that’s who is in the most danger,” he says.
In 2019, a team of social scientists conducted a study to observe the impact of lead exposure on the children of Flint.
The recently released data shows that of the 244 children included in the analysis, 76% were reported to have been screened after the water switch. Of those children, 43.9% experienced hyperactivity, 39.3% had emotional agitation, 29.1% had comprehension issues and learning delays, while 38.9% had skin rashes, and 10.7% experienced hair loss.
In November 2021, a federal judge approved a $626 million settlement toward individual and class-action lawsuits in Flint.
Edwards says the win was a “miracle,” but because it happened, Benton Harbor has a better chance of succeeding in their case.
“Despite [Benton Harbor] being an environmental justice community and victims of environmental racism, the good news is that Flint did happen. Now, it’s terrible that it happened, but the good news is legally it happened, because there was a body of law that was made from those Flint cases,” he says.
While Edwards continues to support the Benton Harbor community, other cities like Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago are also fighting against lead contamination in their water and land.
There are many more children to save — children whose lives will be forever altered by power holders’ decisions to stand up and do something now.
In the words of the late Gaye, “Who’s willing to try?”