Ongoing since 2014, the Flint, Michigan, water crisis was declared a federal emergency after an interdisciplinary team, led by a local pediatrician, linked pediatric blood lead levels to elevated lead levels in the water. This public health disaster illuminates questions about the nature and scope of clinicians’ obligations to identify, assess, and respond to patients’ and communities’ health risks from harmful microbial and chemical levels in their water supply. Clinicians should be trained to recognize symptoms of contaminated water use, but how should they be trained to help prevent contamination and execute other public health duties? The October 2017 issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics explores clinicians’ roles in defining and enforcing the parameters of what constitutes “safe” water and in addressing barriers to safe water access.
Clinicians have an ethical obligation to promote health equity in their communities. This month, we discuss how clinicians worked to expose the water crisis in Flint, and explore ways that clinicians can combat systemic injustice and promote health equity.