The Lessons Flint Taught Us

On Jan. 24, MPH@GW, The American Public Health Association, Environmental Defense Fund, National Center for Healthy Housing, and Children’s Environmental Health Network cosponsored an event at The Milken Institute School of Public Health about drinking water and lead service lines. Afterward, we asked the event’s panelists and organizers about the lessons that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, taught the public health community. Here’s what they had to say.

I have been involved in the lead issue throughout my entire career and I’ve seen remarkable transformations in this field. We now need to think more holistically about the issue. We’ve learned from Flint and what we’ve learned is that our current way of doing things is not a solution. We need to revise policies and think about the children who have already been exposed to lead.”

— Lynn Goldman, Michael and Lori Milken Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University


After Flint, we now realize we can’t do this by ourselves. Our traditional ways of solving problems isn’t going to work going forward. We need to reach out to different partners and collaborate to solve the problem.” 

— Cathy Bailey, Executive Director, Greater Cincinnati Water Works


The public health community has been trained a very specific way and it’s time we think out of the box. We need to be more open and go beyond what we’ve learned. We’ve learned that lead sources aren’t just coming from water. We have to think about our food, soil and other systems. And we need to think about how we can do better.”

— Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund


Lead service lines are a major threat to public health, and it’s time we develop a plan to get them out of communities across the United States. This is a massive undertaking, and for the process to be successful, a strong partnership between water utilities and public health departments is crucial. We don’t want the next generation to still be drinking water out of lead pipes.

— Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager, Environmental Defense Fund
(In photo, Sarah Vogel, Vice President, Health, on left and Lindsay McCormick on right)


I wish we could reach more people and educate them on the issue. It’s something we’re actively working on. Some people just aren’t aware of the lead problem but it’s something we’ll have to deal with as communities and as a country.”

— Jean Schultz, Environmental and Disease Control Specialist, City of Milwaukee Department of Public Health


Everyone deserves access to safe drinking water. Yet like in Flint, Michigan, several communities across the country are exposed to harmful levels of lead via drinking water; ultimately, resulting in lead poisoning in many children. This issue elevates concerns of inequities and environmental injustice across the country. As a public health priority, systems must be in place that reduce and respond to environments that are harmful to the public’s health. This requires more resources to communities facing the greatest threats. APHA supports the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative’s goal to speed up voluntary lead service line replacement in communities across the United States, and encourages the removal of lead lines that are in contact with drinking water.”

— Surili Patel, Deputy Director, Center for Public Health Policy, APHA


The authorities should have listened to the community. The residents were speaking out. We were living this, but nobody listened. We’ve had to rely on our families to get us through this. The day my father saw me crying about my daughters lead levels is the day he said, ‘I support your work on speaking out. I support you whatever you need.

— Yaquelin Vargas, resident of Flint, mother and activist


Government agencies and water utilities were working in isolation to solve the problem. Now we need the community’s help to reach people on a personal level. We’ve had a hard time getting the word out. Our department has seen success by collaborating with local arts organizations to tell the story in a more creative way and reach more people.”

— Cynthia McCarthy, Senior Sanitarian and HUD Program Manager, Cincinnati Health Department


To truly address this issue, the political will needs to be there. This is real and it’s not going to change overnight. The Flint crisis put a public face on the issue and the public pressure made all the difference. That alliance of community, activists and even celebrities using their voice made a difference. Now we need to mobilize that further.”

— Nsedu Witherspoon, Executive Director, Children's Environmental Health Network
(In photo, Nsedu Witherspoon on left, Kristie Trousdale, Deputy Director, on right)


Lead poisoning is a problem we can solve. We can eliminate unnecessary lead exposures, but only if we commit to looking at lead exposure holistically and to implementing comprehensive solutions that address the entire range of exposures within a given community.”

— Amanda Reddy, Executive Director, National Center for Healthy Housing


To read a recap of the event or watch the full recording, visit our post "Flint Was a Wake Up Call. Now What?"

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Citation for this content: MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University