Flint Crisis – The Reproductive Justice Issue We cannot Ignore in Memphis

Flint Water Crisis – The Reproductive Justice Issue We Cannot Ignore in Memphis

By Terri Lee-Johnson


The water crisis currently occurring in Flint, Michigan is frightening. It is difficult to see people suffer because their water—the most essential, life-sustaining natural resource—arrives to their faucets contaminated with highly toxic lead. We have been made aware of some of the physical ailments brought on by lead poisoning—hair loss, sores and boils on skin, corroding teeth. We also know that internally, lead poisoning can lead to problems including kidney failure, loss of mental function, and miscarriage in pregnant women. Everyone is vulnerable to lead poisoning particularly, the poor. When we look at who overwhelmingly represents our most disadvantaged population nationwide, we are looking at poor women and their babies. In Flint, more than half of its current population is Black and more than half is female[1]. Poor mothers and their children are those most likely to live in areas where government officials are least likely to care about the environmental conditions. Areas much like our own North Memphis and South Memphis with plants and warehouses, past and present, leaving behind numerous environmental toxins leaching into the ground and polluting the air of our most vulnerable residents. The high levels of lead being leached for years into the local water supply in Flint, Michigan has been exacerbated by the fact that its residents are predominantly the working poor[2]. This too can be said for the same types of conditions experienced by many in Memphis.


Memphis is a city with a majority Black population and the demographics of the poor are far too often Black and female. While we may not have cause for concern with our local water supplies being directly contaminated because Memphis has some of the cleanest water in the country, we are not free from concerns of overexposure to lead[3]. Being in the eastern part of the country where lead-based paints were the standard for decades and not banned until 1978, Memphis residents living in older homes not well-maintained are at great risk for lead poisoning as layers of old lead paint are exposed through chipping and flaking[4]. The remnants of long abandoned businesses, like Firestone in North Memphis, continue to leach a number of toxins into the ground and air that are harmful. It is no wonder that this section of Memphis has been known to have infant mortality rates that rivaled some developing nations[5].


Women who are exposed to lead before and during pregnancy may give birth too soon and have babies too small which are both strongly tied to infant mortality (the death of a child before her first birthday). Babies who do survive beyond the first year of life experience behavioral and learning difficulties and lower IQs due to lead poisoning disrupting brain development before birth. Breastfed babies are considered at a slightly lower risk for further exposure as contamination levels are lower in breastmilk than infant formula and the contaminated water with which it would be prepared[6]. However, it is questionable how much slighter the risk if the mother is still only able to consume lead contaminated water while breastfeeding. There is also the issue of poison exposure when bathing in toxic water or breathing in dust particles from lead-based paint, again, in older homes.


Lead poisoned water, among many other issues that often only poor Black folks have to face, is unacceptable. It is a clear example of both economic and environmental injustices plaguing those of us who lack privilege and resources to avoid such inhumanity.

[1] Quick Facts, Flint City, Michigan. http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/2629000

[2] Davis, Benjamin A. “Flint and Katrina: Poor People, Poor Treatment and Water.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Jan. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

[3] “Memphis Water Termed.” “Sweetest in the World.” Water World. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

[4] “Protect Your Family from Exposures to Lead.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

[5] Sainz, Adrian. “Fighting Infant Mortality Still Tough in Memphis.” Washington Examiner. 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.

[6] Lead screening during pregnancy and lactation. Committee Opinion No. 533. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet Gynecol 2012;120:416–20.

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