In perhaps the most dramatic proof yet of the toxic impact of Flint’s decision to draw municipal water from the Flint River, a new study released today shows that the amount of lead found in the bloodstream of Flint children increased dramatically following the switch from the Detroit water system in 2014.
According to the study authored by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Pediatric Residency Program Hurley Medical Center, the percentage of children with elevated blood levels – that is, levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl) – increased from 2.1 percent before the switch to 4 percent after the switch to river water.
The results — which are based on blood samples drawn from 1,746 children ages 5 and younger — were even more frightening in Flint neighborhoods where Virginia Tech researchers testing water from nearly 300 homes found the highest levels of lead in the city’s water. Analysis of blood samples from children living in those same high-risk areas showed that the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood jumped from 2.5 percent to 6.3 percent.
In children who were 15 months old or younger, the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood increased from 1.5 percent to 4.4 percent.
The study analyzed two groups of samples: Jan. 1 to Sept. 15 2013 (pre-switch) and Jan. 1 to Sept. 15 2015 (post-switch).
Meanwhile, Hanna-Attisha’s study found no statistically significant change over that same time period in the lead levels found in blood drawn from Genesee County children living outside of Flint, whose communities were still receiving drinking water from the Detroit system.
The study is the first to clearly tie adverse health conditions in residents to the city’s use of water from the Flint River, which Virginia Tech researchers say is five times more corrosive than water from the Detroit system. That high level of corrosion, which is wreaking havoc on the municipal water infrastructure, is directly connected to the high levels of lead found by the VT researchers.
The study by Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor of pediatrics and human development at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, both validates and builds on the recently completed research done by Virginia Tech scientists, who in August worked with residents from the grassroots Coalition for Clean Water and the ACLU of Michigan to collect and analyze lead levels in water from nearly 300 Flint homes.
The results of that study prompted the project’s leader, civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards, to visit Flint last week and warn residents at a press conference that the city’s water is not safe to drink or use for cooking unless it is properly filtered.
Among other things, Hanna-Attisha’s study found a clear association between neighborhoods where VT researchers found the highest levels of lead in the water and the highest levels of lead in the blood of children.
The consequences for Flint’s children could be tragic. According to information cited in Hanna-Attisha’s report, there is “vast evidence that supports” an increased likelihood of a decline in IQ for children with blood/lead levels as low as 4 ug/dl.
Lead exposure also increases the likelihood of ADHD, delinquent behaviors and arrests and can lead to a greater chance of negative health effects such as hematologic, cardiovascular, immunologic and endocrine problems.
The new study has prompted the nonprofit Greater Flint Health Coalition to call for city officials to issue a formal health advisory warning residents about the dangers posed by lead in their drinking water:
“As a coalition of concerned physicians, healthcare professionals and county leaders, we are compelled to inform the public when there is a possible threat to their health so they can take appropriate precautions and actions to protect themselves and their families. At our last meeting and in recent days, we have heard from numerous physicians who shared strong concerns that not enough was being done to alert the public to potential risks of consuming Flint City water that could lead to elevated levels of lead. In order to communicate in a clear and unified voice we thought it best to ask the City of Flint and its Department of Public Works to issue an advisory that lays out steps that should be taken to ensure the safety of all Flint residents. We are currently awaiting the requested advisory from the City, who has committed to working with the local public health department to release the health advisory.”
That statement was issued by Greater Flint Health Coalition CEO Kirk Smith and by state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who chairs the board of Greater Flint Health Coalition.
“The findings released today are alarming,” said Ananich in a written statement. “Our top priority has to be doing everything we can and finding every available resource to ensure access to safe water for Flint residents. I will be leading an effort to raise state, private and philanthropic resources to deliver filters and clean water into the community as quickly as possible.
“We must act with urgency to protect Flint residents, especially those most vulnerable to the negative health impacts of lead: children. Anyone with concerns about their water should visit flintwaterinfo.com and contact their physician or the Genesee County Health Department immediately.”
Flint officials, including Mayor Dayne Walling, did not return calls seeking comment.
Others, however, were quick to speak out.
Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters, the mother of a child diagnosed with lead poisoning and one of the leaders of the grassroots Coalition for Clean Water, said the study’s findings were sad but not shocking.
“I’m not surprised that these were the findings,” she said. “I’m just thankful for the work that the citizens of Flint have done to keep this problem from being swept under the rug.”
Members of the Coalition for Clean Water have continued to question what, to this point, have been the adamant claims by Flint officials and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the city’s water is safe.
It is because of the continued work of the coalition that Virginia Tech researchers pushed to receive a National Science Foundation grant that funded their recent study of Flint’s water.
In her report – jointly issued under the auspices of Hurley Children’s Hospital and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine – Hanna-Attisha is calling for the city to limit further exposure to lead. Specifically, the city is being asked to:
• Encourage breast feeding
• Urge adults not to use tap water for infants on formula and pregnant mothers
• Declare a health advisory, which allows for additional resources and public education
• Distribute to residents lead-clearing water filters approved by the National Sanitation Foundation
• Educate the public about necessary precautions
• Re-connect the city to Lake Huron as the city’s water source as soon as possible
That last recommendation will be difficult to achieve quickly thanks to Jerry Ambrose, the last state-appointed EM to oversee Flint. Ambrose, Flint’s fourth emergency manager, issued an order as he left office in April that prevents city officials from overturning his decision until at least one year after the city exits receivership.
“It is disgusting and appalling that, as a result of the emergency manager’s orders, the people of Flint are going to continue to be exposed to poisoned water,” said Lee-Anne Walters.
At least at this point the public is being made aware of the problem and will be able to take actions to protect themselves.
The tragedy is that the disclosure comes too late for the children who have been exposed to these high lead levels for the past 18 months. As Hanna-Attish asks in the conclusion of her report: “What will the future hold for an entire generation of Flint children?”
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work focuses on emergency management and open government. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or [email protected].