The Flint Water Crisis: An Opportunity for the Community to Come Together


The Flint water crisis proved to be an unprecedented tragedy for the Flint community on many levels. As a result, the dental profession was catapulted to the spotlight due to the need to address the oral health ramifications of the lack of fluoride in the drinking water, as well as the presence of excess lead in the water supply.

I am proud of how quickly the Genesee District Dental Society came together with the Michigan Dental Association (MDA), the American Dental Association (ADA), and various community-based organizations to address the dental needs of the residents of Flint, MI.

The Flint water crisis developed as a result of the Flint community being forced to receive its water supply from the Flint River on an interim basis. Almost immediately, people began to complain about the color of the water, the development of rashes, and concerns about bacteria. There were also complaints about the odor and taste of the water. As the community began to complain, a resident contacted the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and this began a series of investigations by government agencies.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha began researching her patients, and found high blood levels of lead in children. Other institutions began testing the water, and found high levels of lead as well as bacteria. As cases of Legionnaire’s disease were on the rise, several boil water advisories were called. Ultimately, President Barack Obama called for a state of emergency for Flint, but he stopped short of calling it a national disaster. As a result, residents were told to consume bottled water or place lead filters on their faucets. Nearly everyone still drinks bottled water as a precaution.

From a dental perspective, the Flint water crisis presents many concerns. First, excess lead in the water supply could have adverse effects on oral health. Some studies indicate that high lead levels could contribute to dental decay. Secondly, because people were drinking bottled water and brushing their teeth with it, they were not receiving fluoride, which protects the teeth from developing cavities. Third, I was able to discuss this situation with the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek K. Murthy, and he explained that lead is taken up into the bone.

Therefore, we have concerns about it being present in the jaw bone years from now. Fourth, the water was heavily treated with chemicals to control bacteria levels, and these chemicals contain carcinogens, or cancer causing agents. Oral cancer is on the rise these days, and we must monitor Flint residents more carefully to determine whether or not this type of cancer is increasing in their population more than the rest of society.

The Genesee District Dental Society called a roundtable meeting with the MDA and ADA, as well as local, state, and national organizations to collaborate on ways to assist the Flint community with their oral health needs. Delta Dental donated $204,000 so that fluoride treatments could be provided to school age children. The MDA created public service announcements to educate the community. All of our efforts are ongoing.

It is so important for society to understand that oral health is connected to overall health. Anything that occurs in the mouth can affect the rest of the body, and vice versa. It is very important for everyone to have a dental home as well a medical home. Now, more than ever, the Flint community must have access to all the medical and dental treatment they both need and deserve.

Now, more than ever, the Flint community must have access to all the medical and dental treatment they both need and deserve.

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