Flint's corrosive water 'might' have resulted in rashes and hair loss

Aug 24, 2016 at 11:05 am
click to enlarge Flint's corrosive water 'might' have resulted in rashes and hair loss
Barta IV/Flickr
Questions remain about the source of a spate of rashes and cases of hair loss that have occurred recently in Flint — with some wondering if the abnormalities are tied to Flint's decision to connect to the corrosive Flint River from April 2014 until October 2015.

While a multi-month investigation by federal and state agencies has no definitive answers in terms of a tie between the Flint River water and the rashes and hair loss, the probe has validated the concerns of the residents as it looked into water tests from the time period and a number of medical diagnoses surveys. 

"The rashes Flint residents have reported are of great concern to the community and to all of us who are working to improve health in the city," Dr Nicole Lurie, the federal department of health and human services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a statement on Tuesday.

As is to be expected, any conclusive links between the water and these abnormalities are anticipated to magnify strains already found between residents and the state government. Flint was under emergency management when the decision was made to connect to the Flint River in April 2014 — the two-year public health crisis that has since ensued has been a source of frustration and anger for many in the beleaguered city. 

In the fall it was revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not ensure that Flint officials were adhering to proper water treatment protocols — steps that would have likely minimized the corrosive nature of the river water and stopped lead from leaching from pipes into the drinking water. This blunder is blamed by some for city's recent uptick in Legionnaires' disease (between June 2014 and November 2015, 12 people died from the disease, versus the four years prior when there were only six to 13 cases). 

The news of the Legionnaires' outbreak is particularly controversial, as emails released in February indicate that Gov. Rick Snyder's administration was aware of the spike in Legionnaires' in Flint — and its potential connection to the Flint River — nearly a year before the public was informed about the outbreak. When Snyder shared the news of the Legionnaires' uptick during a January press conference he marinated that he and others were unsure of the switched water source was directly responsible for the rise in case. 

While Flint residents have been told for months now that it is safe to bath in Flint water, the tone has shifted considerably post-inconclusive rash and hair loss investigation. 

"The choice to use the municipal water supply to shower or bathe is an individual one," Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive said in a statement Tuesday. "We recommend that residents with concerns discuss their symptoms with a doctor to help them make decisions about their use of the water."

For the multi-month investigation into the hair loss and rashes, officials surveyed 390 people who had active symptoms. The goal of the investigation — which had not conclusive answer other than the corrosive Flint River water "might" have caused these conditions — was to better understand the science associated with the complaints. Of those interviewed 122 — or 31 percent — were evaluated by a dermatologist and of that smaller group 80 percent had skin conditions that could "possibly related to water exposure." Of the 390 interviewed 77 percent said their conditions coincided with the switch to the Flint River water, and changes in what their tap water looked and smelled like. 

"The (research team) ... found evidence supporting Flint residents’ concern that water from the Flint River might have led to skin problems," Dr. Lurie said, according to the Detroit News. "Fortunately, water samples from the city’s current water did not show metals and minerals at levels that would cause or make rashes worse."

While the city of Flint has been connected to Lake Huron — vis a vis the Great Lakes Water Authority — since October 2015, the investigation did look at water samples from April 2014-October 2015, when the Flint River was the main water source. 

That analysis "found that the pH, chlorine and water hardness levels fluctuated and were, at times, higher during that period and might have led to rashes," a joint press release issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control said. 

Investigators also noted, however, that poor hygiene — inconsistent bathing — during the flint water crisis could have also lead to the rashes. 

"Rashes that developed then might have been made worse by mental and physical stress and changes in personal care routines (showering, bathing, use of harsh soaps, and topical treatments) in response to concerns about the water, as well as cold/dry winter weather, lack of treatment and other factors," the release noted.