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The Flint Lead Water Crisis Lawsuits: A Lawyer's Opinion

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The City of Flint water supply crisis has brought international attention to the lead poisoning crisis in the State of Michigan.  While opportunists pile into town and presidential hopefuls debate the crisis on television, the real question I have is “Where Have You All Been?”  No one has cared about the child lead poisoning epidemic in this state for decades.

My law firm has handled more child lead poisoning cases, by a far margin, than any other firm in Michigan since 1997.  I cannot even name the firm in second place.  Lawsuits are typically filed against landlords who rent homes with lead based paint hazards to families with small children.  While many of these cases have resulted in settlements for the young individual victims, our state government has dragged its feet on eliminating this major public health hazard to entire communities.

I was happy to see Governor Snyder apologize to the people of Flint during his State of the State address.  We all know that politicians only apologize when they are caught red-handed. It is easy to blame the current administration for the lead crisis in Flint because public welfare, especially of the poor and underprivileged, has never been a concern or priority of Governor Snyder.  However, the statewide problem of child lead poisoning has never been adequately addressed by any previous administration, either Republican or Democratic.

According the Center for Disease Control, the primary source of child lead poisoning is peeling, flaking, and chipping paint in home built before 1978.  Over the last two decades, the threshold definition of an elevated blood lead level (BLL) for child lead poisoning has been lowered from 20 ug/dl to 5 ug/dl.  This demonstrates that the detrimental effects of lead on a child’s brain are far worse than the medical community recognized even in the 1980’s.

Lead poisoning is devastating to both children and the community.  Lead poisoning causes brain damage, learning disabilities, lowered intelligence, and behavioral problems.  Studies have confirmed that high blood lead levels can cause ADHD and other conditions that adversely affect a child’s ability to learn in school and engage socially with other children.  The long term effects are illiteracy, poverty, and criminal conduct.

The published State of Michigan Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program statistics show that in 2013, there were 5,702 children under six years old in Michigan diagnosed with blood lead levels greater than 5 ug/dl.  The numbers are even higher in many previous years and only include children that were tested for lead poisoning.  These poisonings affect generations of families, most of who were already born into lives with significant obstacles to overcome.

The State of Michigan and many counties have programs to safely renovate homes identified with lead based paint hazards.  A relatively small number of homes qualify for the programs and many of the beneficiaries of these funds are the landlords, not the lead poisoned tenants.  Meanwhile, governments are funding major sports stadiums for the benefits of billionaires while poor children continue to live in homes that cause them permanent and irreversible brain damage.

Children in the City of Flint and surrounding county have a long history of high blood levels which has primarily been attributed to lead based paint and dust in their homes.  Many children are moved from one house to another, only to be continuously exposed throughout their childhood to these dangerous conditions in successive housing units.  No one has even noticed until now.  If ten percent of the children attending Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills elementary schools had toxic lead poisoning that caused irreversible brain damage, there would have been public outcry and government intervention decades ago.

The Flint water crisis is real and brings attention to the fact that the poor of our society are still relegated to substandard and dangerous housing.  Whether it can be proven that the water has caused an increase in lead poisoning is a battle for the lawyers and their hired experts.  My colleagues in other states have learned from failed class actions that proving the effects of lead on a population exposure is much more difficult than on a single case basis.  There are simply too many factors in the equation.

The likelihood of successful class action lawsuits is remote in this state due to both our archaic governmental immunity laws and some of the most conservative courts in the United States.  Poor children rarely stand a chance against big business and government in our courtrooms.  It is difficult to be optimistic knowing the history of lead poisoning in Michigan.

Hopefully, the public outcry for the citizens of Flint will ignite statewide action to make housing lead safe for children.  I am hopeful these lawsuits will cause change and the governor’s apologies turn into actions after the cameras are turned off.   However, from past experience, I suspect that once the celebrities leave town, the debates are over, and the lawsuits are dismissed, the public will forget this issue and move onto more important things, like building a new sports arena.

Lawrence J. Buckfire

Southfield, MI

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