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Toxic Trauma: Household Water Quality Experiences Predict Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms During the Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis

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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PSTSD) is a mental disorder that is triggered by experiences of traumatic events, and individuals with PTSD often re-experiences and remembers the previous traumatic experience. Symptoms of PTSD can continue for years and can result in serious problems in everyday life. Symptoms include reliving the event, avoiding situations that remind individuals of the event, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and hyperarousal. 

The Flint Water Crisis is a definite example of a traumatic event. It’s not a surprise to consider that the victims of the crisis may be worried or anxious about the possible long-term health effects of drinking and using the contaminated water. After changing the water supply for Flint from Lake Huron to the Flint River, community members expressed their concerns about the quality of the water at municipal meetings, organized marches and protests, and attended and reached out to the media. However, Flint officials insisted that the city water was safe to drink. 

On September 8, 2015, a research team from Virginia Tech reported that about 40% of Flint homes have elevated levels of lead in their water supply. Shortly after reports of elevated levels of lead in blood and water became public, the Speak to Your Health! (STYH) Community Survey began collecting data to study the relationship between tap water quality experiences and PTSD symptoms in Genesee County residents.  

The new survey included the Short Screening Scale for PTSD (Breslau, Peterson, Kessler, & Schultz, 1999), in which a question read “In your life, have you ever had any experience that was so frightening, horrible, or upsetting that, in the past month you” and contained seven items such as “… were jumpy or easily startled by ordinary noises or movements?” Those who answered yes to four or more items met screening criteria for PTSD. Another question in the survey asked respondents to rate the quality of their tap water (taste, smell, appearance) on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 was poor and 5 was excellent.

On average, respondents were 51 years of age, had 14 years of education, and had a score of 2 out of 7 on the PTSD screening scale. Respondents rated their tap water quality was poor (35%), fair (18%), good (20%), very good (20%), and excellent (10%). From the results, there is a significant relationship between reported tap water quality and level of PTSD symptomatology. This means that people who experienced poorer tap water quality experienced greater PTSD symptomatology. 

Although there has been a lot of work done to replace the water pipes, human-focused efforts are very small. Increasing efforts to emphasize the potential mental health issues that could have occurred due to the Flint Water Crisis is incredibly important. Local residents could genuinely benefit from mental health services if the city were to put more work into this area. 

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