/ Blog Post
By Erin Mette, 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and an anonymous donor
For many residents of Detroit and Flint, home is a hazard to their health.
Home-based environmental health hazards include lead poisoning from the paint on the walls of old homes and the soil in the backyard, as well as lack of access to clean drinking water due to lead contamination and water service shutoffs. The children who live in these homes with environmental health hazards are especially vulnerable to the life-long health impacts these hazards cause.
The Flint water crisis highlighted the irreversible effects of lead poisoning on children, such as impaired brain development that often results in a lifetime of behavioral and health challenges. In addition to lead-contaminated water, children in both Detroit and Flint are also at high risk of exposure to lead from deteriorating paint in older homes, including airborne lead dust from home demolitions.
In 2016, 8.8 percent of children tested in Detroit had elevated blood lead levels, compared to 3.6 percent statewide. Along with lead exposure, lack of access to water due to contamination or water shutoffs poses other health problems, like increasing the risk of soft tissue and gastrointestinal infection. In 2016, 27,552 Detroit homes had water shut off because of unpaid water bills. By the spring of 2017, 10 percent of Flint households owed more than $1,000 in water bills, and the city sent past due notices to nearly one-third of all Flint water customers.
My commitment to ensuring a safe and healthy environment for children in Detroit and Flint grew out of my work as an environmental educator, where I witnessed the impacts of environmental injustice on children in southeast Michigan firsthand. From 2012 to 2013, I worked with the Beecher High School in Flint to design an outdoor classroom and garden on the school’s grounds, guided by students’ interest in providing healthy food to their community through gardening. Shortly before I began law school, news of the water crisis in Flint became public. I thought of the students, families, and educators of Beecher, and the focus of my professional pursuits became clear to me: I wanted to become an effective advocate for children facing environmental injustice.
The first six months of my Equal Justice Works Fellowship at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit have been jam-packed with legal advocacy and outreach activities. I’ve helped to develop an audit methodology to assess public water systems’ compliance with Michigan’s recently revised Lead and Copper Rule. I’ve partnered with another legal services organization to work as co-counsel on litigation involving families renting homes with lead hazards, with the goal of increasing landlord compliance with Detroit’s lead ordinance. I’ve also started providing legal counsel to community organizations advocating for Michigan residents whose drinking water has been contaminated with PFAS chemicals. Outreach efforts have also been a key part of my project and I’ve focused on creating educational materials for Michigan residents facing water shutoffs, unaffordable water bills, contaminated water, and lead hazards; as well as a handbook for lawyers providing legal counsel and representation to such residents.
I am so grateful to my sponsors, host organization, and Equal Justice Works for providing me with this incredible opportunity to serve my community and work to protect children in Detroit and Flint from home-based environmental health hazards.
To learn more about Erin and her Fellowship, view her profile.
My commitment to ensuring a safe and healthy environment for children in Detroit and Flint grew out of my work as an environmental educator, where I witnessed the impacts of environmental injustice on children in southeast Michigan firsthand.
Erin Mette /
Equal Justice Works Fellow