Flint, Michigan, and Porter Ranch, California, may lie on opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, but they share much in common including gross bureaucratic mismanagement and, until very recently, indifference. The result has been no less than the slow but steady contamination of these communities and sickening of their respective residents - including companion animals.
Currently, lead levels coursing through Flint’s water supply range from 2,000 ppb (parts per billion) to 13,200 ppb (200-1,300 times higher than World Health Organization acceptable standards of 10 ppb). Meanwhile upwards of 100,000 metric tons of methane gas have spewed into the skies above Porter Ranch. Long-term effects from the ingestion of lead are well known and include stunted physical and cognitive development. Continuous exposure to methane renders life almost unlivable with unrelenting circulatory, respiratory and gastronomic distress.
Families in both communities have been struck by the debilitating - and, possibly deadly - effects of these disasters on their beloved pets.
Until Flint’s water supply was contaminated, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had not reported a single case of lead toxicity in household pets over the past five years. There are now two confirmed cases of dogs with high levels of lead in Genesee County. State officials have not released information about the status of these pets (other than that they are alive) and have not confirmed that their condition was a result of drinking from Flint’s heavy-metal well. Symptoms of lead poisoning in dogs include weakness and seizures.
The exact toxic effects of the Porter Ranch gas leak on animals remains unclear. However, Dr. David Smith, a veterinarian at Northridge Animal Hospital, told ABC News that his facility has seen a spike of several hundred in the number of cases presenting to the clinic since the gas leak sprung last October 23. Since then, a wave of sudden-onset nausea, nose bleeds, rashes and skin lesions has plagued pets as well as their human companions. To date, Southern California Gas officials have not released data on pets sickened or killed by the gas leak.
Widespread damage has been psychic as well as physical. Advocates and news agencies have discovered that the environmental disasters in Flint and Porter Ranch were both a long time in the making. Both were equally preventable. And both were met with flagrant disregard from the outset.
In an effort to save money, an unelected state official switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April, 2014. Aging pipelines connecting the river have long been corrosive and leaching into the economically-depressed city’s potable water system. Twenty months elapsed after Flint’s spigots and faucets began to run red before the city and state declared a state of emergency. The state has since trucked in tons of bottled water - too late to undo the irreversible effects of lead poisoning in Flint’s two- and four-legged residents.
The wheels of response may have turned quicker for the more affluent Porter Ranch community, though government languor was still evident. Only after months of unrelenting pressure from residents and activists - including Erin Brockovich - did California Governor, Jerry Brown, issue a state of emergency. The feds have yet to follow suit. Only now is the Southern California Gas Company being held accountable and paying for residents’ relocation. Inexplicably, the safety valve on the methane-leaking well was removed back in 1979.
But in perhaps the ultimate insult, families in both communities have been billed by city utilities for the privilege of being poisoned.
As responsible citizens and pet parents, it is up to us to keep tabs on our local utilities and stay informed about aging city infrastructure. Our animal companions, furry and feathered, scaled and shelled, are depending on us to protect them in a world that does not always have their health and welfare at heart.