Worried about terrorism? Thousands of young children in Flint, Michigan have been poisoned by their state government’s austerity moves and may have life-long damage.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has been tough on “waste” and is a big fan of restructuring, having controversially set up a system of emergency managers to oversee troubled communities in lieu of locally elected officials. One of the latest victims of this process is Flint, Michigan, a rust-belt ruin, financially distressed since the decline of its auto industry.
In April, 2014, Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager changed the city’s water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron treated water with anti-corrosives to water from Flint River, in a poorly thought out cost-saving maneuver. They did not add anti-corrosives to the Flint system, as that would have cost $100/day.
Residents rapidly voiced complaints about the smell, taste and rusty appearance of the water. They also raised health concerns including rashes, hair loss and mood changes. Even General Motors stopped using the Flint water, “saying it was rusting its parts.”
That summer, there was an E. coli advisory. The town added chlorine to try to insure adequate disinfection. In the cascade of unintended consequences, the initially higher chlorine levels caused increased corrosion that then led to increased levels of lead in water and, ironically, to increased bacteria levels as the chlorine levels dropped below the needed amount. A “boil advisory” was issued—but cooking concentrates lead, actually leading to somewhat higher exposures.
The corrosion also caused release of total trihalomethanes or TTHM. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the bane of certain politicians, long-term ingestion of TTHM can cause liver or kidney damage and an increased cancer risk. Both the heightened fecal (E. coli) bacteria counts in water and the contamination with TTHM are violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act…but who needs the EPA?
One might dismiss these errors as poor judgment, but through careful citizen science and investigations by the teams of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (Hurley Children’s Hospital, Michigan State University), Dr. Marc Edwards (Virginia Tech water quality expert), Curt Guyette (ACLU investigative reporter), NBC News and numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, it is clear that Snyder administration officials knew of the problems at least as of July, 2015, and hid the truth.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s team reviewed lead levels in children routinely tested, usually between the ages of 1-2, in 2013 and 2015, i.e., before and after the change in water supply. The percentage of children younger than 5 with elevated lead levels nearly doubled after the switch, from 2.1% to 4%. In city wards with the highest levels of lead in water, the numbers with high BLL jumped from 2.5% to 6.3%; in two wards, the levels more than tripled.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha notes that children can absorb 4-5x higher amounts of water-soluble lead compared to adults. She adds that in children aged 1 to 5 years, every 1-ppb increase in water lead increases blood lead by 35%—quite a concern, given the high levels found in water. Dr. Hanna-Attisha raises particular concern about young infants receiving formula reconstituted with tap water. Iron deficiency may also allow for increased lead absorption from the GI tract. [In one home, water levels averaged 2,000 ppb, more that 200 times higher than the World Health Organization allows. One sample from that home had lead levels reaching 13,000 ppb. Lee Anne Walters’ son, Gavin, had BLL that rose from 2 to 6.5 mcg/dL after the switch.]
What are the dangers of lead?
We now know that there is no safe level of lead—even low levels of lead exposure are harmful. The major sources of lead here were gasoline, paint chips and water from old plumbing. After lead was removed from gasoline and paint, blood lead levels (BLL) in children decreased on average from 16 mcg/dL to less than 3 mcg/dL. Residual lead persists in the environment, however. A toxic level is currently defined as 5 mcg/dL. In U.S. children age 1-5, the prevalence of BLLs >10 mcg/dL decreased from 88% to 4.4% between 1976 and 1994 and further dropped to 0.8% by 2010. Yet there are still almost half a million children in the U.S. with levels >5 mcg/dL.
A further problem is that the less developed blood-brain barrier in young children also allows more lead to enter the developing nervous system, contributing to life-long neurologic sequela. Protecting pregnant women from lead exposure is thus critical for their babies. Children retain about 1/3 of absorbed lead, and it is retained in their bones, so blood levels may actually underestimate exposure.
Early symptoms can include irritability and insomnia, or decreased appetite. Later neurologic problems, even with low exposures, can include hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, learning and memory difficulties. In fact, studies show impaired cognition or neurologic problems even with levels below 5 mcg/dL. Lead poisoning can cause speech impairment and hearing loss, further exacerbating learning or behavioral problems. These problems in turn increase the risk of delinquent behavior and arrests. High blood levels—generally higher than 70—can even cause seizures or coma.
Not all the side effects are neurologic. Many occur at BLL of >30. Lead poisoning can cause anemia, exacerbating an iron deficiency in children similarly at risk. Other complications include kidney damage, colic and Vitamin D deficiency with bone or dental problems.
Lead poisoning disproportionately affects poor, inner-city children living in old, deteriorating housing. Those between 12 and 36 months old are at higher risk, as they are more likely to eat contaminated paint chips or dirt. Similarly, immigrants from Mexico or Latin America in particular are considered at higher risk from potential exposure to paint, ceramic or pewter cookware, or some popular home remedies.
In Flint, 56% of the residents are African-American vs. the 14% state average; 8% are under 5 years old. Unemployment and poverty are rampant.
Freddie Gray, the young Black man who died in police custody in Baltimore, illustrates a picture of what can happen with lead poisoning. In Freddie’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, testing showed that more than 3% of children younger than 6 had high lead levels in their blood. At 9 months, Freddie’s blood lead level was 10 mcg/dL; by 22 months, it rose to 37. He had failures in school, “run-ins with the law and an inability to focus on anything for very long.” His family had settled a lawsuit with their landlord over the children’s poisoning.
There are some theories that high lead levels, which can cause behavioral, emotional, and legal problems, actually cause crime, as research has shown that high levels of blood lead are strongly associated with the failure to control impulses in later life. Perhaps this contributes to inner-city problems more than has been thought.
The levels of lead found in Flint are disturbing, but still relatively low, having been found far earlier than in some other cities, like D.C. With these modest increases, Dr. Hanna-Attisha is approaching treatment through sound nutrition and education, trying “to instill hope,” sorely needed in the community. Vitamin C, iron and calcium—all important in a healthy diet—also reduce lead levels. So Hurley Children’s Hospital has co-developed a nutrition and resource guide with recipes. Their team is also focusing on monitoring at risk children to be able to provide early interventions, if needed. No aggressive treatments are needed.
The Justice Department announced this week that it was beginning an investigation into the Flint water crisis. Coincidentally, Governor Snyder declared a state of emergency that very same day. Yet Snyder has not yet found time to ensure that safe water is distributed to the community—that has fallen on volunteers and donations.
To save a projected $12 million, Snyder is now requesting $50 million in emergency aid—just the upfront immediate costs of replacing 15,000 lead service lines and reconnecting to Detroit. The Flint mayor suggests that the cost of fixing the problem could reach $1.5 billion. Snyder, a.k.a. @onetoughnerd on Twitter, derides big government, but now appears likely to shift the cost of this debacle onto the Feds (i.e., onto all of us).
This fiasco was completely avoidable, even if Flint used the river water. As Dr. Edwards noted, “Flint is the only city in America that I’m aware who does not have a corrosion control plan in place to stop this kind of problem.” He explained, “If they added the corrosion inhibitor, called orthophosphate, they could have added less chlorine, kept the lead on the pipe, reduced TTHMs and also reduced the iron corrosion (red water). Adding the inhibitor was the minimum they could have done to follow the law. It would have cost $100 per day.”
Instead, in Michigan alone, the projected “economic losses attributable to lead exposure in the 2009 cohort of 5 year-olds ranges from $3.19 billion (using U.S. blood lead levels) to $4.85 billion (using Michigan blood lead levels) per year in loss of future lifetime earnings.”
Who benefits? Certainly not the citizens of Michigan, now faced with huge costs of damaged children and perhaps increased crime. Perhaps the private prison pipeline?