Flint’s water became tainted with lead in April 2014 while the city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager after it temporarily switched its water source for drinking water from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to Flint water treated at the Flint water treatment plant. For months, however, the state dismissed reports of rising lead levels in the drinking water before acknowledging a problem.
“We are making sure that our members in Flint get medical checks for health hazards associated with lead contamination and are protected against further contamination,” says General President Harold Schaitberger.
Despite the growing concern about possible health effects of lead in the drinking water, Local 352 members have received no medical exams – the Flint Fire Department does not offer annual medicals or have a wellness program.
“This union’s job is to protect the health and safety of all IAFF members,” Schaitberger says, “and we will do everything we can to make sure our Flint brothers and sisters receive this important medical screening. It could possibly save their lives.”
The medical exams will help create a baseline for possible future illnesses. High levels of lead can cause hypertension and other issues for adults and can lead to far more serious problems in children.
BioCare, a mobile medical testing company, will provide the medical exams – which are 100 percent funded by this union – to Local 352 members. The comprehensive exam includes blood work, lead testing, pulmonary function, chest x-ray, EKG and prostate cancer screening. The results will remain confidential between the member and the health care professional. IAFF members from surrounding locals who reside in Flint are also eligible to receive the exam at no charge.
The medical testing, which will be completed off duty, is scheduled for later this month.
“We are extremely grateful to the IAFF for making these medicals available to our members in Flint,” says Gilbert. “Thanks to our IAFF, we are taking a great step forward in protecting all of our members both on and off the job.” The tests will also help identify any other underlying health issues.
In addition, we are having the water filtration system in the city’s four active fire stations evaluated. President Schaitberger worked with United Association (UA) General President William Hite to send UA Local 370 Business Agent Harold Harrington to Flint. He reports that the filtering system at the water intake point entering the fire station will filter the lead, but once it leaves the filtering system, the water will re-contaminate with lead because the stations’ interior water pipes are contaminated.
Working with the International’s medical resident and industrial hygienist, staff also developed a fact sheet and FAQs to address members’ concerns about exposures to lead.
The water in Flint remains unsafe to drink without filters, despite a switch back to Detroit water in October. A possible link between the river water and two outbreaks of Legionnaires disease in the Flint area in 2014 and 2015 is being investigated.
The federal government has declared a federal emergency in Flint and is providing $5 million to address the issue, and has said it will expand Medicaid eligibility for certain residents. The governor has also requested $232 million from the state legislature to address the issues in Flint.
There is wide disagreement between federal and state regulators over the share of blame for causing the unsafe drinking water in Flint. In recent congressional hearings, the U.S. House Oversight Committee suggested the state was slow to react to warnings of rising lead levels in Flint’s tap water and did not take adequate steps to protect the public’s health, and criticized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not intervening sooner. Questions have also been raised about the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) failure to require corrosion controls in 2014 when the city switched its water supply.
Michigan Governor Dan Snyder has rejected calls for his resignation. The House Oversight Committee is calling for Snyder and Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley to testify before the Committee.