Panel discusses Detroit’s mass water shutoffs as public health crisis - The South End: News

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Panel discusses Detroit’s mass water shutoffs as public health crisis

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Posted: Sunday, July 30, 2017 10:31 am

The Detroit Equity Action Lab held a discussion on July 26 about the connection between the Detroit water shutoffs and water-related illnesses, declaring it a public health crisis.

The panel consisted of doctors, civil rights advocates, and victims of water shutoffs.  The discussion called for more funding and studies about the shutoffs and returning water to low-income residents whose water has been turned off. 

Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, moderated the discussion and said there are shut-offs everywhere in the city but more in poor areas.  Hammer said these shut-offs are happening by a block-to-block radius and neighborhoods surrounding the university are included.

“The biggest story not told is racial segregation happening at a regional level,” Hammer said.

Dr. Diana Hernandez, assistant professor at Columbia University, said African-Americans are more likely to be victims of water shut offs than other ethnicities.

“Detroit is in the midst of experiencing mass water shutoffs and unconstitutional home foreclosures,” said Hernandez.

Henry Ford Health System’s Global Health Initiative and Division of Infectious Disease collaborated with We the People of Detroit Research Collective to conducted a study with findings of a connection between the city’s water shut-offs and water-related illnesses based on samples of patients.

According to the study, these patients had skin and soft tissue infections and water borne bacterial infections. The study showed 37,441 cases of water-borne illnesses in Detroit were analyzed and compared to Detroit addresses whose water had been turned off.  The study also showed that patients diagnosed with skin and soft tissue disease were 1.48 times more likely to live on blocks that experienced water shut offs.

“Detroit has over a 40 percent poverty rate. Every month tens of thousands of Detroiters make very hard decisions about how to budget on very limited resources,” said Hammer. “Are those resources going to food... Are they going to use those resources to pay their rent... Are they going to use that for a doctor’s visit for their children?”

Dr. Wendy Johnson, the former medical director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, said the Detroit water shutoffs are now a public health crisis. She said access to clean water is a human right and is important to prevent infectious diseases.

“All of a sudden we decided making a profit is more important than the community,” said Johnson. “Even places with no water have a high respect for value of water.”

Dr. Paul von Oeyen, a retired high-risk obstetrician, expressed his concern of the effects of the water shutoff on expecting mothers and their infants. He said hydration in pregnancy is very important and morning sickness in early pregnancies can lead to dehydration.

“As a physician and a person of faith I feel I must speak out about these outlandish shutoffs,” said Von Oeyen.

Hammer said depending on how financially stable students are they could be at risk too.  He said students living in off-campus housing in surrounding neighborhoods of WSU should be careful because the issue affects everyone.

“If students are having a hard time paying tuition…these students are at risk,” said Hammer.

We the People of Detroit has a water right hotline for residents who need assistance with locating emergency water and making payment arrangements with the Detroit Water Sewage Department. For assistance call 1-844-429-2837 or visit


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