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Flint's massive water poisoning all started with an innocent-enough vote at city council.

The National Guard was called, a break-in happened, and Rick Snyder admits culpability.

Flint's massive water poisoning all started with an innocent-enough vote at city council.

The Flint City Council had no idea what was to come from its attempt to shave its budget in 2013.

Trying to peel some money away in the budget for other things, the city council in Flint, Michigan, set off a chain of events in March 2013 that had devastating effects.

The council voted 7-1 to pass a resolution to stop buying water from Detroit and join a new initiative piping in water directly from Lake Huron.


They weren't the only ones who approved of this plan, which was supposed to save the city $19 million over eight years. The plan was fine by the state of Michigan, and the city's emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, who signed off on it a month later.

Then Detroit notified Flint that it would cease selling water to them well before the new plan was set to take effect, which sent Flint scrambling to find a new source for water.

They eventually settled on the Flint River, despite prior reports saying it had the "most degraded water quality among the Saginaw River tributaries."

The river water that would corrode lead-infused pipes, poisoning a city. Image by Andrew Jameson/Wikimedia Commons.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling flipped the switch that officially shut off the Detroit water supply to his city on April 25, 2014. In a celebratory statement that would later seem downright haunting, he said:

“Water is an absolute vital service that most everyone takes for granted. It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply.”

However much money the switch was slated to save the city, it would end up costing Flint residents so much more.

A local mom sounded the alarm when she noticed lead levels spiking in her kids.

After a local mother, LeeAnne Walters, noticed her four children becoming very sick, she turned to her pediatrician. The doctor wrote a letter to the city of Flint warning that because one of the Walters' children has a compromised immune system, he couldn't safely use the city water. The city sent someone to test the water in the Walters' home in November 2014.

The EPA recommends lead levels in water for children to stay under 15 parts per billion (ppb) to avoid brain, blood, and kidney damage. In the Walters' home, lead levels were at 397 ppb. The official threshold for lead poisoning — or "action level" — occurs at 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl). Walters' son Gavin had a blood lead level of 6.5 mcg/dl.

Walters contacted the mayor, who did next to nothing to address her problem. She then contacted Miguel Del Toral from the EPA, who got a civil engineer named Marc Edwards, who studies corrosive lead and water, to start looking at the case.

Edwards' team collected samples from hundreds of Flint water customers, and the results were astounding. When retested, the lead levels at the Walters residence had shot up to 13,000 ppb in nine months. Lead levels had similarly spiked in the other samples.

LaShanti Redmond (left), 10, and her sister Asharra Smith, 6, wait with their mother, Charlene Mitchell, of Flint, to get their blood tested for lead levels on Jan. 12, 2016. The Flint Community Schools, the Genesee County Health Department, and Molina Healthcare held a family fun night to get children ages 0-6 tested for lead levels in their blood. Image by Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP.

But where was the lead coming from?

The city's water infrastructure, like many cities', is quite old. The pipes contain lead, which is fine if the water is not corrosive — like the water from Detroit.

But when the city switched to the water from the Flint River, it failed to treat it to prevent corrosion, which set off a terrible chain of events.

Edwards was so horrified that he called for those responsible to be punished:

“If a landlord with no training in public health doesn’t inform a tenant of a lead hazard, they can and have been sent to jail. That’s how seriously society takes this issue. So what should be the fate of someone paid to do a specific job of protecting the public from this neurotoxin and they fail? If we’re going to throw a landlord in jail ... how can you not hold these guys accountable?”

Flint is now in a state of emergency, and Gov. Rick Snyder is in the hot seat about how much he knew and when.

Did Rick Snyder and other officials act as soon as they should have? Image by Rob Hall/Wikimedia Commons.

On Jan. 5, 2016, Snyder declared the city in a state of emergency. That day, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would be investigating why it took so long for officials to act.

The dangerous levels in Walters' home were first discovered in November 2014, and subsequent concerns were dismissed until a pediatrician released a report outlining over 1,700 children's blood lead levels in September 2015.

Finally, on Jan. 12, 2016, Snyder called in the National Guard to help distribute emergency water. In a concerning turn of events, it was just announced that the City Hall office where water documents are kept was broken into over the recent holiday break.

Asked relentlessly during a recent press conference about whether he was culpable for the water crisis, Snyder admitted, "I have a degree of responsibility."

Those paying the price for all of this are the kids — and some adults, too.

Lead poisoning has disastrous long-term effects. Learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments are almost certain among a significant portion of the children poisoned, as lead poisoning affects brain volume, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and impulse control.

This is a collection of MRI scans from adults who were exposed to lead as children, showing the parts of the brain where the loss in mass occurred.

Image from the medical report "Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead Exposure"/Wikimedia Commons.

Lead poisoning affects adults, too. Flint resident Michael Webber has gone blind in one eye since the water switched to the river source.

His doctor says high blood pressure resulted in a stroke in his eye and that normal function will never return. Lead poisoning results in high blood pressure, and Webber reports he always had normal blood pressure before the switch.

We can't go back in time to save Flint, but we can protect our own cities with this new knowledge.

We can donate to those making sure the citizens of Flint have enough water to survive. We can call for charges against those who were negligent enough to cause this crisis. But even if the officials responsible get punished to the full extent of the law — which is a real "if" — the damage is done.

Local and state decision-makers have a ton of power and responsibility over citizens' health, and they don't always make the right judgment calls. We can't just assume they always know what's best.

The only protection we have in the face of these errors and mismanagement is in each other, as citizens — by remaining engaged and in-the-know about our community, alerting each other when we discover health hazards, and keeping tabs on the decisions our leaders are making. The blame is fully with the decision-makers, but by the time citizens know how something went wrong, it's often too late.

Maybe today is the day we'll all look into where our city's water is coming from and how it's being treated.

We may prevent the next Flint.

People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."