In a New York Times op-ed published yesterday, Paul Krugman compared Flint, Michigan's ongoing water crisis—which has caused a spike in lead poisoning and, possibly, Legionnaires' disease—to another historic failure of urban sanitation, London's Great Stink of 1858:
"This story — America in the 21st century, and you can trust neither the water nor what officials say about it — would be a horrifying outrage even if it were an accident or an isolated instance of bad policy. But it isn’t. On the contrary, the nightmare in Flint reflects the resurgence in American politics of exactly the same attitudes that led to London’s Great Stink more than a century and a half ago."
How valid is Krugman's comparison of modern-day Flint and Victorian London? While we are all for highlighting the many parallels between 19th-century urban sanitation politics and the current situation, there are some issues in Krugman's piece that we don't think should go unchallenged. For one thing, the history of the water politics of U.S. cities has some key differences from that of London—most crucially the fact that London was already well over a millennium old in the 19th century, so it faced the obstacle of reshaping an entire pre-existing urban infrastructure in order to implement the changes that, by 1858, citizens and politicians all knew were very much needed.
This cartoon pointed out how disgusting the Thames was in 1828, 30 years before the Great Stink
The short format of the op-ed also doesn't allow for a nuanced explanation of how sanitation reforms really came about, both in London and across the Atlantic. As I explained in an article I wrote for The Appendix in 2014, London had been planning a new sanitation and water system since the 1840s. Though delayed due to funding, logistical, and above all political roadblocks, the so-called Sanitary Idea had actually gained enormous momentum before the Great Stink interrupted Parliament.
And why exactly did governments begin to care about urban sanitation in the middle of the 19th century? The reality is a little more dehumanizing than Krugman thinks: London's great sanitary pioneers didn't argue that cities should invest in water and sewer infrastructures because of altruism or any concept of the right of citizens to a clean environment, but instead because they believed that the urban poor were polluting city streets both literally and figuratively. In his famous 1842 Report from the Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, public health pioneer Sir Edwin Chadwick argued,
"That the younger population, bred up under noxious physical agencies, is inferior in physical organization and general health to a population preserved from the presence of such agencies...That the population so exposed is less susceptible of moral influences, and the effects of education are more transient than with a healthy population."
In other words, dirty cities were thought to create a monster urban underclass that threatened wealthier citizens with both physical disease and degenerate morals.
Edwin Chadwick's 1842 map of Leeds used statistics to connect disease with poverty—and to show how proximity to the poor threatened the upper classes
This same idea popped up across the Atlantic in Massachusetts in the 1850 Shattuck Report, which is credited with being the reason for the establishment of the first state health department. As historian Martin V. Melosi explains in his book The Sanitary City, the report "reinforced Shattuck's view that immigrants were primarily responsible for the degradation of the cities and the spread of disease. The conclusion stated that since a large portion of the population was not abiding by proper sanitary principles, the state must assume the responsibility to assure the public health."
In both the United Kingdom and the United States, the Victorian rationale for the development of public health systems relied on a fundamental us vs. them opposition, where the "them" refers to some disenfranchised group that was believed to be dangerously degenerate. According to this way of thinking, the role of the state was not to provide a basic utility to all urban residents, but to protect the middle and upper classes from the allegedly infectious filth of the poor.
Now back to Flint. Like many midwestern cities, Flint lagged a bit behind east coast American cities in terms of water infrastructure, relying on private companies to serve its citizens through the early 20th century, but it built its own state-of-the-art water treatment plant in 1917. In 1952, it built a second plant to support the city's booming population, a result of the thriving auto industry. As the city's prosperity continued into the 1960s, the city found itself needing even more water to support its growth, and planned to build its own pipeline from Lake Huron—but a political scandal forced the city to abandon that plan at the last minute, and Flint began buying its water from nearby Detroit, which had plenty of its own treatment plants.
Through all this water history, Flint (like many cities) used a system of lead pipes to carry the water into houses and businesses. In order to prevent the leeching of lead into drinking water, Flint (and then Detroit) had a simple solution: adding a chemical named orthophosphate, which insulated the pipes, to the water supply. As long as the chemical was added, Flint's drinking water was perfectly safe. This all changed, as you've likely read, in 2014, when Flint stopped buying water from Detroit and began pumping water from the Flint River through those lead pipes—without adding the protective orthophosphate.
Why not take this simple step? We think it's here that the Victorian context we just summarized is really important to know. Political momentum for sanitation improvements in 1850s London and Massachusetts relied above all on urban inequality, and specifically on the discomfort the middle and upper classes felt as a result of living in close proximity with the poor. Flint, which has been economically depressed since its General Motors plant closed in the 1980s, no longer has a politically powerful upper class to agitate for clean water—so, in true Victorian fashion, the State of Michigan turned a blind eye as thousands of its citizens, and especially children, were poisoned.