by Steven A. Kolmes


The Flint, Michigan, drinking-water crisis (“The Paradox of Water and the Flint Crisis,” Bhawani Ven- kataraman, Environment,

January/February 2018) is poised to enter the national consciousness and conscience of the United States, in much the same way that contamina-tion by a fatal cocktail of mixed in-dustrial chemicals did for the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls,

New York, in the late 1970s, or the di-oxin contamination of what is now the ghost town of Times Beach, Missouri, did in the early 1980s (see Matthew C. Nisbet’s article “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Mat-ter for Public Engagement” and Alan McGowan’s accompanying editorial on framing environmental issues in the March/April 2009 issue of Environ-ment). However, the contamination of the Flint, Michigan, drinking water by

lead, a developmental neurotoxin, and trihalomethanes, which are carcino-gens, differs fundamentally by being carried out, as Venkataraman thor-oughly describes, by a public agency upon which the trust of the population ought to have been able to reside. Her article chronicles the crisis, with its causes and implications, in a thought-ful way to which I would like to add one more element, that of extended time.

Residents told authorities about discoloration and foul taste in their water in Flint, Michigan, shortly after their water source was changed to the Flint River, but they were only told to boil the water to kill any bacteria and otherwise it was safe.





Showsthe Needfor Long-Term Commitmentto Health Care



Venkataraman alludes to the signifi-cance of the time scale when she writes, “more than a year had passed since the switch—a switch that was intended to save money—resulted in the residents of Flint paying dearly and, due to the lead poisoning of the children, potentially intergenerationally.” Now enough is known to say that epigenetic intergener-ational injustice can exist, and it calls for a specific social response in the name of restorative justice for the most vulner-able (see Steven A. Kolmes, “Environ-mental Policy Choices: The Importance of the Preferential Option for the Poor in Laudato si’,” Environment, May/June 2016; David R. Boyd, “The Constitu-tional Right to a Healthy Environment,” Environment, July/August 2012).

We have come to understand recently that while DNA sequences of genes are very stable across generations, heritable changes in gene activity occur despite the DNA sequence being unaltered. Such changes in genetic activity are due to epigenetic processes; environmental toxins such as lead have epigenetic im-pacts. Lead exposure is virtually always a result of human activities, and the ex-posure of children to lead has special and serious ethical implications.1 The

new recognition of heritable epigenetic damage projects ethical concerns into a new dimension by extending them across time.2 DNA methylation is one

form of epigenetic change caused by environmental toxins; it involves attach-ment of a carbon with three hydrogens bonded to it, a methyl group, to a spe-cific location on the ring structure of cy-tosine (a major DNA component), and it changes DNA activity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body.”3 This conclusion can be reached on just the basis of the immediate harm to children from lead exposure, which many studies have demonstrated causes developmen-tal and cognitive problems, as well as worse pregnancy outcomes. But from an intergenerational perspective, lead exposure like that seen in the children of Flint also produces heritable epigen-etic change. As levels of lead measured in a mother’s kneecap increase, there is an accompanying increase in DNA methylation in umbilical cord blood.4 Mothers in Detroit with high blood lead





Children drinking water from faucets in Flint, Michigan, had significantly increased blood lead levels.





Perinatal infants and children are especially vulnerable to the many impacts of lead poisoning, which can include reduced cognitive ability, increased rates of ADHD, altered sensory function, and other significant adverse impacts that can also include increased vulnerability to diseases much later in life.








levels around the time of birth also had altered DNA methylation at more than 500 genetic locations in their newborn’s blood. Researchers went on to test the hypothesis that lead exposure caused epigenetic changes in the grandchildren of lead-exposed pregnant women. Lead exposure during pregnancy changed the DNA methylation of the initial infants’ fetal germ cells, because researchers subsequently measured altered DNA methylation in the next generation’s (the grandchildren’s) neonatal dried blood spots collected at the time of birth.5 The significance later in life of this epigene-tic change in blood collected at the time of the grandchildren’s birth remains to be determined, since such epigenetic patterns might reverse within the first 3–5 years of life,6 but by that point much neural development will have become irreversible. In terms of mechanisms by which epigenetic changes due to lead exposure might damage human health, increased lead exposure in adults results in epigenetic changes in ALAD genes that result in less ALAD gene activity. Normal ALAD gene activity is needed in turn to produce an enzyme that goes on to be crucial to hemoglobin produc-tion for red blood cells.7 Red blood cells with less hemoglobin carry less oxygen to all the organs of the body, producing widespread health impacts.

Why is it worth considering this new and longer dimension of time in terms of lead exposure’s impacts? It suggests that not only does the bureaucratic sys-tem, with the dangerous infrastructure for delivering drinking water in Flint, need to be remedied, but a multigenera-tional commitment to providing health monitoring and public health interven-tions for impacted children is called for, which is the first recognition of a situ-ation that requires a three-generation response in terms of health care.2 The damage of the tragedy of Flint needs to be fully recognized for what it is, and for a time scale that perhaps will prove to

be an important component in the fu-ture. As Venkataraman notes, there are more and more circumstances requiring restorative justice, including in Hoo-sick Falls, New York, Appalachia, the tribal nations, service people on mili-tary bases, and farm communities in the Central Valley.


Steven A. Kolmes https://orcid. org/0000-0002-7782-5241

Steven A. Kolmes is the Rev. John Molter, C.S.C., Chair in Science at the University of Portland in Portland, Or-egon.


1. R. A. Butkus and S. A. Kolmes, “Children in Jeop-ardy: Anthropogenic Toxins and Childhood Exposure,” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 7 (2010): 83–114.

2. R. A. Butkus, and S. A. Kolmes, “Integral Ecol-ogy, Epigenetics and the Common Good, Reflections on Laudato Si and Flint, Michigan.” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 14 (2017): 291–320.

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead,” http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead (accessed January 25, 2018).

4. J. R. Pilsner, H. Hu, A. Ettinger, B. N. Sánchez, R. O. Wright, D. Cantonwine, A. Lazarus, H. Lamadrid-Figueroa, A. Mercado-García, M. M. Téllez-Rojo, and M. Hernández-Avila, “Influence of Prenatal Lead Exposure on Genomic Methylation of Cord Blood DNA,” Environ-mental Health Perspectives 117 (2009): 1466–71.

5. A. Sen, N. Heredia, M. Senut, S. Land, K. Hollo-cher, X. Lu, M. O. Dereski, and D. M. Ruden, “Multigen-erational Epigenetic Inheritance in Humans: DNA Meth-ylation Changes Associated With Maternal Exposure to Lead can be Transmitted to the Grandchildren,” Nature, Science Reports 5 (2015):14466. doi:10.1038/srep1446; M. Senut, P. Cingolani, A. Sen, A. Kruger, A. Shaik, H. Hirsch, S. T. Suhr, and D. Ruden, “Epigenetics of Early-Life Lead Exposure and Effects on Brain Development,” Epigenomics 4 (2012): 665–74.

6. A. Sen, N. Heredia, M. Senut, S. Land, K. Hollo-cher, X. Lu, M. O. Dereski, and D. M. Ruden, “Multigen-erational Epigenetic Inheritance in Humans: DNA Meth-ylation Changes Associated With Maternal Exposure to Lead can be Transmitted to the Grandchildren,” Nature, Science Reports 5 (2015):14466.

7. C. Li, M. Xu, S. Wang, X. Yang, S. Zhou, J. Zhang, Q. Liu, and Y. Sun, “Lead Exposure Suppressed ALAD Transcription by Increasing Methylation Level of the Pro-moter CpG Islands,” Toxicology Letters 203 (2011): 48–53.

Authorities made the decision to provide drinking water from the Flint River—but not to add anti-corrosive chemicals to prevent leaching from the lead pipes—as a cost-saving measure.




Copyright of Environment is the property of Taylor & Francis Ltd and its content may not becopied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder'sexpress written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles forindividual use.

Is this the question you were looking for? Place your Order Here