A Toxic Response

Recently the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by the governments of Iran and Russia, murdered 70 people and injured another 500 in a chemical weapons attack in Douma, a suburb of Damascus. The use of chemical weapons is banned by the multinational Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC, signed in 1993, is more comprehensive than the Geneva Protocol developed after World War I in banning the use of chemical weapons. The use of these weapons against military targets is illegal and against civilian targets is villainous.

The response to this attack was a multi-national missile strike designed to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability and to put them on notice that the use of chemical weapons will result in an immediate international response. This response consisted of the use of roughly 100 missiles launched by the US, England and France against Syrian targets. Approximately 60 of the missiles were US fired Tomahawk cruise missiles.

A Tomahawk is an intermediate range cruise missile with a range of up to 1500 miles and is equipped with a 1000 pound conventional warhead. Tomahawks are highly accurate and can be steered from a remote location. The cost of a Tomahawk is roughly $850,000 dollars and so the cost, in material alone, for last week’s attack was about $50 million dollars. Syria’s use of chemical weapons demanded a swift and vigorous response. The effectiveness of our response to deter further use of chemical weapons will have to be seen.

In April 2014 Flint Michigan changed the source of its municipal water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Soon after residents noted that the taste, look and smell of the water was strange. Investigation revealed problems of bacterial contamination resulting in an emergency where the city instructed residents to boil their water for safety. The chlorine employed by the water authority to help fight the bacteria was used at such levels that in October of that year the General Motors plant in Flint stopped using the city’s water because the chlorine was corroding engine parts. Other chemicals used to treat the water proved to be carcinogenic. There was little to no response to this chemical attack on the population of Flint.

In 2015, following a complaint, tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicated dangerous levels of lead in the water of residents’ homes. Lead is a known toxin and consumption of even small amounts can affect the heart, kidneys and nervous system. Lead exposure in children is a long-recognized problem and can result in learning delays, behavioral disorders, and hearing problems. Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years and even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. At very high levels lead poisoning can be fatal.

The testing performed by the EPA revealed lead contamination of 104 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. This is nearly seven times the 15 ppb limit mandated by the EPA. A follow up test measured lead levels as high as 397 ppb. In September of that year, following further testing by Virginia Tech, recommendations were made to the State the water was not safe for drinking or cooking. The conclusion was that the river water was corroding old pipes and that lead was leaching into the water. That same month a study released by a physician from the local hospital documented that lead levels in children nearly doubled since the city changed the source of its water. In October of 2015 the Governor of Michigan signed a bill appropriating a little over $9 million dollars to reconnect Flint to its previous water source.

The next two and a half years were spent filing class-action lawsuits against the State and accusations by the EPA that the State of Michigan’s response to this crisis was woefully inadequate. Meanwhile the citizens of Flint were provided free bottled water to drink.

In April of the 2018, four years after the recognition of a problem that included: revelations of bacterial contamination, contamination of the water supply by carcinogenic substances and lead levels nearly 20 times the safe limit the Governor announced an end of the free water program declaring the water quality had been restored.

The point of this article is not to equate an intentional and criminal chemical attack on a civilian population by a brutal dictator with a crisis caused inadvertently through switching a city’s water supply. Rather the goal here was to detail the government’s response to a population’s exposure to toxic chemicals and the investment we are willing as a nation to absorb to address the problem. A chemical attack in Syria generated a $50 million dollar response by the US in less than one week’s time. An effective response to toxins in Flint’s water system took four years and numerous lawsuits, studies and accusations to create change. It is unfortunate that the nation’s response to the health of its own citizens was not matched with the same speed and intensity of our response to those overseas.



Dr. Robert Pretzlaff is an experienced public speaker and lecturer at the national, regional and local level. Have Robert speak at your next event.
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