Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Alana Mattei
Alana Mattei is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE).
In 2014, officials made a choice that haunted the residents of Flint, Michigan for years to come. It’s been almost four years since the water flowing from taps in Flint became unsafe, undrinkable, and the cause of a major public health crisis. At first, this crisis dominated the news cycle, but as of today it has been largely displaced. While the story no longer makes headlines on a daily basis, Americans are reminded occasionally that all, or at least part, of Flint still lacks access to clean drinking water years later. In November of 2017, tap water was still not drinkable for many residents. Although the contaminated Flint River was no longer the city’s water source, water coming from the new clean source still needs to pass through the corroded pipes which leaked lead into the water. 
At the onset of 2016, Michigan’s Attorney General, Bill Schuette, began an independent review of the situation. The first charges were levied against three officials later that year. To date, forty-three charges against thirteen public officials have been filed, including former Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose. Both men are charged “with multiple 20-year felonies for their failure to protect the residents of Flint from health hazards caused by contaminated drinking water” . Ambrose decided to wave his preliminary exam hearing and proceed with a trial that could begin as early as this spring. 
Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Lyon, faces charges as serious as involuntary manslaughter. More specifically, Lyon is being charged with the death of a man who contracted Legionnaire’s disease from consumption of the contaminated water.  This death was one of around a dozen due to Legionnaires’ that occurred after the city changed its water source in 2014. The prosecutor’s case as a whole, however, is not so clear cut. The choices made by Michigan’s public officials contributed to a plethora of ailments in the Flint population, with the fatal cases of Legionnaire’s disease being among the most serious. To link the actions of the officials to cases of Legionnaire’s and subsequent deaths requires the prosecution to meticulously piece together the timeline of events and rely on scientific studies that found a definite link between the 2014-2015 outbreak and the switch to the Flint River. 
The suffering of Flint residents because of the mistakes and inaction of public officials may continue into the relatively distant future even after the officials have been prosecuted. Some consequences of the contaminated water source may not come to light for years to come. Aside from the almost immediate physical sickness suffered by residents of Flint, the high levels of lead in their water may also have long-term social implications.
Lead has been linked to serious developmental problems in those who ingest it at a young age. These problems take effect immediately but produce results that are slow to come to the surface – like cases where high levels of lead in the blood is linked to lower IQs and behavioral issues.  Possibly worse, however, is the fact the changes caused by lead in developing brains may make these children more likely to end up on the wrong end of the criminal justice system later in life. It’s been determined that the changes that occur in a developing brain’s chemistry and structure due to high blood lead levels may make these individuals more predisposed to criminal tendencies that escalate as they age. 
High levels of lead in a child’s blood could lead to disabilities such as ADHD and difficulty with impulse control. The “lead-crime hypothesis” cites a decrease in the use of leaded gasoline as a cause of the decline in America’s violent crime rates in the 1990s. Children in the 1940s and 1950s had ingested copious amounts of lead because of leaded gasoline. It has been proposed that these children “were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.”  Individuals who were young at the time of the institution of the Clean Air Act of 1970, on the other hand, presumably grew up with lower blood lead levels than the previous generation and therefore went on to commit fewer violent crimes. This matches up with the decline in violent crime in the mid-1990s. 
It will be interesting to see if in the coming years Flint experiences an opposite trend. Flint may still be suffering the consequences of their tainted drinking water for more than twenty years to come as those children who ingested lead in 2014-2017 grow up to ages where their behavioral issues turn into crimes. It is by no means a given that this will happen, and hopefully it will not, but if it does it may serve to bolster the lead-crime hypothesis and lead to the reevaluation of policy in other regions where lead consumption is an issue.
 Ravve, Ruth. "Flint water crisis: Some residents still unable to drink tap water three years later." Fox News. Accessed February 18, 2018.
 "Four More Officials Charged in Third Round of Flint Water Crisis Criminal Investigation." AG - Four More Officials Charged in Third Round of Flint Water Crisis Criminal Investigation. Accessed February 22, 2018.
 Fleming, Leonard N. "Ex-Flint EM decides to head straight to trial." Detroit News. January 25, 2018. Accessed February 22, 2018.
 Fonger, Ron. "MDHHS Director Nick Lyon won't return to court until 2018." MLive.com. December 15, 2017. Accessed February 22, 2018.
 Fonger, Ron |. "Flint water prosecutors about to rest in preliminary exam for DHHS director." MLive.com. February 16, 2018. Accessed February 21, 2018.
 Zahran, Sammy, Shawn P. McElmurry, Paul E. Kilgore, David Mushinski, Jack Press, Nancy G. Love, Richard C. Sadler, and Michele S. Swanson. "Assessment of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Flint, Michigan." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. February 01, 2018. Accessed February 22, 2018.
 Drum, Kevin. "Lead: America’s Real Criminal Element." Mother Jones. June 23, 2017. Accessed February 21, 2018.
Photo credit: Flickr user George Thomas
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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