Erasing Flint’s Water Crisis: Or How to Lie With Statistics

Photo by Pete Souza | CC BY 2.0

Mark Twain famously wrote that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This insight is relevant to examining the apologetics of modern-day academics in the rising neoliberal assault on the public. This subservience to power is evident in efforts to rationalize governmental attacks on the most basic of human needs: access to clean water. In seeking to numb the public to basic facts and reality, the New York Times has published an op-ed analysis piece by Hernán Gómez and Kim Dietrich: “The Children of Flint Were Not Poisoned” (7/22/2018).

On the face of it, many might take the above piece seriously in light of its prestigious source. It was published in the most prominent, influential newspaper in the country – the national “paper of record.” Furthermore, the authors are trained experts in their fields, Gómez an “associate professor” of emergency medicine” at the University of Michigan, Dietrich a “professor of epidemiology and environmental health” at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Furthermore, Gómez’s research on Flint has gone through the peer review process, as seen in the publication of his article, “Blood Lead Levels of Children in Michigan: 2006-2016” in The Journal of Pediatrics. Scholarly peer review is designed to guarantee the highest possible quality of scholarly and medical research, although in this case it appears that the process badly broke down in relation to the study of water in Flint.

Before discussing the New York Time’s claims, it is worth briefly reviewing the history of what happened in Flint, Michigan. In a country where people’s historical memory is notoriously short, many may have forgotten exactly what happened in this tragic case. To provide some context, Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder declared an emergency takeover of Flint’s financial management in November of 2011, citing the city’s fiscal mismanagement and its lack of revenues to provide for basic services. Snyder sought to cut governing costs, under a neoliberal program of “austerity” measures, which included switching the public drinking water source from Lake Huron (Detroit’s water source) to the far more polluted Flint River. As the Los Angeles Times reported, in the transition to using Flint River water: “evidence suggests that the simple failure to use proper anti-corrosive agents led to the leaching of lead into the city’s water. It has also become apparent that the slow responses of local, state, and federal officials to the crisis – as well as their penchant for obfuscation – prolonged the lead exposure.” The switch occurred in the spring of 2014, after which Flint citizens began to complain of “discolored, foul-tasting, awful-smelling water,” which made residents sick and provoked a national outcry against the Michigan Governor, who was attacked for poisoning the city’s residents.

Enter the July 2018 New York Times “retrospective” on the events in Flint, which bears little resemblance to the actual events in the city from 2014 onward. In their analysis, Gómez and Dietrich chide those who condemn the poisoning of Flint. They lament the use of the word “poisoned,” “which suggests children are irreparably brain-damaged.” The authors see this characterization as “grossly inaccurate” and “problematic” in light of their scientific findings. The authors write that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “now considers a blood lead level in children of 5 micrograms per deciliter and higher to be a ‘reference level.’ This measure is intended to identify children at higher risk and set off communitywide prevention activities.” Trying to defuse the notion of a mass poisoning crisis, they write:

“After Flint’s water was switched from Detroit’s municipal system to the Flint River, the annual percentage of Flint children whose blood lead levels surpassed the reference level did increase – but only from 2.2 percent to 3.7 percent…Moving from evaluating percentages to examining actual blood lead levels in children, we found that levels did increase after the water switched over in 2014 [to Flint River water], but only by a modest .11 micrograms per deciliter. A similar increase of .12 micrograms per deciliter occurred randomly in 2010-2011. It is not possible, statistically speaking, to distinguish the increase that occurred at the height of the contamination crisis from other random variations over the previous decade.”

There is so much that is wrong with this narrative that it is difficult to unpack it all, although I’ll try my best throughout this piece. The story told by Gómez and Dietrich is highly misleading, and depending on how charitable one wants to be, it ranges from intellectually incompetent to ethically dishonest in its portrayals of what happened in Flint. If one takes the New York Times’ analysis here at face value, the lesson seems pretty clear: while Americans in general are right to be concerned with lead poisoning in their water, the Flint, Michigan water “crisis” was anything but. There was no evidence of mass poisoning of children, relative to lead concentrations in other cities’ water. Nothing to see here. Move along.

At most, Gómez and Dietrich admit that the switch to Flint River water resulted in “a much greater percentage of households having tap water that exceeded the maximum lead water concentration of 15 parts per billion allowable by the 1991 [federal] Lead and Copper Rule.” But this is far from admitting to a crisis. Vague phrases like “a much greater percentage” could be interpreted in various ways, for example in line with the author’s own finding that the percent of Flint’s children with high blood-lead levels increased from 2.2 percent to 3.7 percent, which represents a more than two-thirds increase – albeit applying to a relatively small number of people.

The New York Time’s narrative on Flint misses many points. It whitewashes the reality in Flint that the water in the city was undrinkable for a number of years due to lead poisoning. It didn’t pass a basic eye or smell test for countless residents, with images of yellow, orange, and red discoloration of the water making their rounds in the news media between 2014 and 2016 onward. As CNN reported, elevated lead levels that went beyond the federal maximum guidelines were consistently detected across city water samples in 2015. Flint’s water exceeded federal lead caps in 2016 as well, and it was not until 2018 that tests revealed water had fallen under “acceptable” federal maximum levels. Even this finding, however, should be carefully qualified; there is no “safe” level of lead in water. Federal guidelines are created to identify high levels of risk, not to deem water with lead in it to be “safe” simply because it doesn’t exceed the federal government’s maximum threshold.

It seems pretty clear from the above accounts that the water of Flint was undrinkable between 2014 and 2016, at least if one wanted to avoid exposure to high levels of lead concentrations. This raises a very basic question, but one that is completely ignored in the New York Times’ analysis: how could water lead levels be so high, and lead blood levels be relatively low at the same time? Two potential answers I offer here: 1. Gómez’s findings are not the final say on this matter, and his study downplays a real risk that was actually present (and may still be present) in Flint that is not captured in their presentation of statistics; or 2. Gómez and Dietrich have completely failed to understand how people on the ground responded to the crisis, by refusing to consume the water in Flint, thereby largely avoiding toxic lead poisoning. Either (or both) of these explanations is possible, although neither is explored in any serious or substantive way in the New York Times’ analysis.

Considering the first point, we should acknowledge that the Gómez-Dietrich analysis is a single study of Flint. Which means that by itself, it should not be taken seriously as the final word on this issue, or as an authoritative account of what happened to the Flint’s water supply. The likelihood of any single study completely (or largely) capturing all relevant angles of any social or environmental phenomenon is low. Furthermore, there are other studies that do equate consumption of Flint’s water with significant negative health effects. Many of these studies were spearheaded by lead University of Michigan researcher Daniel Kruger, whose peer reviewed survey research and publications conclude the following:

+ Genesee County residents (where Flint is located) – at least those “who considered their tap water to be poor quality,” were significantly more likely to also report “poor physical and mental health, independent of socio-demographic factors known to be associated with these types of health outcomes.”

+ Individual perceptions of lower tap water quality were significantly associated with “lower sleep quality and shorter sleep length.”

+ Finally, residents “who thought their tap water was of lower quality” were significantly more likely to report “greater symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Whether these documented findings are due to the actual physical damage directly inflicted by Flint’s water on peoples’ bodies, or simply due to the negative psychological (and resulting physical effects) that manifested themselves due to living in a city where people feared for their health and lives on a daily basis, the findings here raise significant concerns about health dangers for the residents of Flint and in relation to lead-contaminated water.

Unfortunately, Gómez and Dietrich ignore these findings entirely in their New York Times analysis piece and in Gomez’s original article in The Journal of Pediatrics, which can be found here. One can dispute the findings from Kruger’s research team, of course, as no study is beyond criticism. It’s at least possible that some other confounding factor or variable caused Flint residents’ sickness, outside of poisoned water or psychological stress. But by completely ignoring Kruger’s findings (which were published well before Gómez’s), the New York Times has engaged in a shoddy contribution to the national discourse on public water safety.

It also seems likely that, while lead blood levels for Flint’s residents were relatively lower than might initially be expected, the poisoning of the city was avoided because of residents simply refusing to consume the water. According to this position: there most certainly was a crisis of water poisoning in Flint, but the worst effects of that crisis were avoided because city residents were vigilant in protecting themselves from toxified water that was forced on them by the state. There is anecdotal and statistical evidence to reinforce this assessment. News reporting has made it perfectly clear that residents of the city have avoided consuming the water due to perceived health risks. Furthermore, one 2018 survey of 2,000 Flint residents finds that they have been “using bottled water not just to drink but for everything from bathing to flushing their toilets.” The survey found that the average respondent was using 14.7 cases of bottled water a week, while households with pregnant women and children younger than six “used more – an average of 19.3 cases per week.” Survey findings also reinforce the notion that community distrust of the water quality is widespread. As the Detroit Free Press reported, one 2016 poll of Flint residents found that 70 percent of the city did not trust “government assurances that filtered water is safe to drink,” which should not be surprising considering water samples found that lead levels still exceeded maximum federal thresholds in 2016.

It is worth asking: what rationally-thinking person would pour foul smelling yellow, orange, or red water out of their faucet, and drink it, or give it to their children, without any concern for what it would do to their bodies, especially in the midst of widespread reports that the city’s water was poisoned with lead? This point should be so obvious that it doesn’t need further elaboration, but it’s entirely ignored in Gómez and Dietrich’s New York Times analysis. It seems pretty clear from the above evidence that citizens of the city were in mass avoiding consuming Flint’s toxic water, to the extent that they were able. And even the state of Michigan begrudgingly conceded that such a threat existed, as seen in their shipping in of clean water bottles for residents’ consumption over the last few years, in response to a federal court order. Gómezand Dietrich could have addressed Flint residents’ avoidance of drinking tap water as a potential explanatory factor for lower lead blood levels. This would have been relatively simple, in terms of surveying city residents and identifying: 1. How many (half, most, all?) have refused to drink city tap water due to safety concerns, and measuring 2. Whether those who have consumed it (at all, or frequently) are more likely to have higher blood lead levels than those who have refused to drink the city’s water.

It seems bizarre to be talking about Flint as a manufactured crisis, especially at a time when prosecutions are being pursued against more than a dozen city and state officials in relation to the poisoning of Flint’s water. Criminal negligence is no joke, especially when government forced contaminated Flint River water on city residents, knowingly ignoring public concerns about lead-polluted water that exceeded federal maximum allowances. Sadly, the New York Times’ willingness to traffic in poor research and analysis on this important political matter means they have contributed to the deterioration of public discourse on a vital public safety issue. This failure coincides with the rise of neoliberal political discourse and ideology, which seeks to foster distrust in government, while assaulting basic and vital public goods.

The risk of growing public contempt for science increases with shoddy academic and medical studies. Scholars have a unique responsibility to pursue high quality, publicly accessible research at a time when reactionary political officials and pundits seek to discredit the very notion of scientific inquiry, framing it as an elitist, liberal, and duplicitous endeavor. I don’t believe that poor studies like this one should lead Americans to reject the legitimacy of scientific or social scientific research. Rather, the point is to become better, smarter consumers of this research. We need to recognize that one study is never the “end all, be all” of knowledge-building. We also need to be willing to criticize studies that fail to engage with competing research findings, as this study did. Finally, we need to be wary of researchers who rely simply on one method of inquiry – in this case looking only at lead-blood samples for Flint’s residents – while ignoring other obvious signs of a crisis, including reporting of dangerously high lead levels in water, and city residents’ refusal to consume that water due to its toxicity.

Outside of the academic concerns above, there are broader societal-ethical concerns to be addressed in this case. It is difficult to conclude that the New York Times’ latest analysis on Flint is anything but callous to the plight of a city whose water was criminally poisoned by lead. This crisis was entirely avoidable, had the state of Michigan simply cared enough to adequately fund and protect access to clean water. Similarly, for researchers to ignore competing medical research findings, and completely ignore obvious contrary interpretations of what happened on the ground in Flint, smacks of academic incompetence and/or dishonesty. Kruger’s competing findings are easy enough to discover with a simple online search, so for the editors of the New York Times to have missed them speaks poorly of their intellectual faculties. Academics (whether knowingly or not) have a long history of colluding with (or at least refusing to actively challenge) official propaganda. In this case, the New York Times’ analysis on Flint functions as a blatant apologetics for neoliberal government officials, who have long insisted that Flint water was not poisoned, was safe for consumption, and that community residents raising red flags about contaminated water were paranoid kooks. Journalists in America have historically served as stenographers to power, but that doesn’t mean we have to normalize this unfortunate state of affairs any longer.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.