The most dominant ethics story this month is the unfolding public health and pediatric ethics disaster caused by unethical and incompetent actors in Flint, Michigan.
The saga and health consequences of the decision to switch Flint’s water source to the Flint River is nicely outlined in the Time cover story published January 21, 2016: (See http://time.com/4188328/the-poisoning-of-an-american-city/) . If you can’t get past the “pay wall” to “The Poisoning of an American City”, here are other good reviews of the crisis:
The consequences of lead poisoning to endocrine development can be explored here, although more research is clearly needed within the pediatric endocrine context: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19411819
Flint is an organizational ethics story that became a health disparities story. In this case, shortsighted decisions were motivated by budgets and greed. There was no consideration of potential environmental or health consequences of switching water sources, which is the hallmark of competent decision-making. Such considerations are especially critical when children’s health is at stake, as special protections in public health decision-making need to be in place for our most vulnerable populations.
What makes this a health disparities story is that once the water was switched, the complaints from a poor community were disregarded, as those who became ill from the water were disenfranchised.
This isn’t the first time poor American children have been lead poisoned this century. Researchers were called out in 2001 for exposing poor children to lead in an infamous paint study: (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/24/health/children/24LEAD.html)
Baltimore has had a particularly shady history of lead exposure in poor communities: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/baltimores-toxic-legacy-of-lead-paint/
For more on lead poisoning and race, see: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/01/lead-and-race-flint—and-everywhere-else
Although the Flint water crisis has been compared by others to Hurricane Katrina, this crisis is more comparable to the terrible decisions made in the early 1980s surrounding the public blood supply. In the early days of AIDS, the blood industry decided it was too expensive to screen potential blood donors, which led to the unnecessary spread of HIV/AIDS into the public blood supply, but particularly into the pediatric population. We are still recovering from those decisions. The Executive Summary of the Institute of Medicine Report, HIV and the Blood Supply can be seen here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232406/
Flint echoes many painful health disparities and global health episodes in which members of a disenfranchised community were not heard.
What may be the most instructive about the Flint saga are the moral heroes of the story. (See: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/01/flint-water-crisis-lead-heroes ). Of note is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who demonstrated moral courage and spoke up on behalf of her vulnerable patients and their families.
Ultimately, this infamous public health disaster we will now always refer to as “Flint” is about sickening business decisions and a failure of accountability.