High Lead Levels in Children Spark State of Emergency in Michigan

High Lead Levels in Children Spark State of Emergency in Michigan
Toxins and Chemicals

Back in October, we reported on the growing lead crisis in Flint, Michigan’s tap water. Water had twice the amount of lead in it after it switched its water sources in April 2014 from the Detroit to the Flint River, all in the name of money.

The Genessee County Health Department finally declared a state of emergency after residents complained for a year about foul-smelling and foul-tasting water coming out of their faucets in a variety of different colors.

First, city officials denied that the water was unsafe. Then, the state issued a notice informing Flint residents that their water contained dangerous levels of trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to cancer and other diseases.

Instead of switching back to Detroit water, city officials instructed residents to boil their water and handed out water filters.

It took a petition containing 26,000 signatures demanding that the city stop pulling its water from the Flint River and repeated demonstrations by residents to get Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to make the switch on October 8.

And when the truth finally came out, tests confirmed water-lead levels were the highest they’d been in 20 years. [1]

Well, a new state of emergency has been declared, but this time it’s because of the amount of lead in Flint children’s blood and not the water itself.

Even though Flint has changed its water source back to the Detroit River, corroded pipes have lost their protective seal, so the water remains unsafe and much of the system will have to be replaced. The news led new mayor Karen Weaver to declare a state of emergency.

“We started hearing in late August of elevated water lead levels. Pediatricians freaked out,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the director of the pediatric residency program at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, says. “That’s really when we got mobilized.”

After the city changed its water source, Hanna-Attisha tried to attain county-wide blood samples, but was discouraged from doing so by a county health officer who told her the data “couldn’t be easily analyzed.”

But she did get her hands on the samples through Hurley Medical Center’s own records. What she saw stunned her: when she compared kids’ blood-lead levels in Flint prior to and after the city from the Detroit system, she found that the number of youngsters with elevated blood-lead levels (≥5 micrograms per deciliter) had nearly doubled in Flint. More than 6% of children in zip codes with high levels of lead in the water reported these elevated levels.

More than 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood is considered lead poisoning, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe level of lead in blood.

“We know lead and we know the life-altering, multigenerational impact of lead,” Hanna-Attisha said. “If you detect lead in a child, there’s a public health, environmental problem.”

Lead poisoning is extremely dire in children. It can be invisible for years, then suddenly manifest as mental health and behavioral problems, learning disabilities, anemia, renal impairment, immunotoxicity, and toxicity to the reproductive organs.

Infants and toddlers may not show any signs of damage, but their developing brains may have been indelibly harmed by the toxic metal, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Your development is progressing so rapidly at those early ages,” Hanna-Attisha says. “You’re going to be carrying that exposure forever.”

As these children reach school age, the damage becomes apparent in the forms of lower IQ and ADHD-like symptoms.

Now Flint is grappling with a crisis that could have easily been avoided.

“The City of Flint has experienced a manmade disaster,” Weaver said in a declaratory statement. The mayor went on to say that she was seeking the federal government’s support in dealing with the “irreversible” effects of lead exposure on the city’s children.

In addition, Weaver wrote that she thinks the health consequences of the disaster will require special education and mental health resources, as well as developments in the juvenile justice system.

“Do we meet the criteria [for a disaster area]? I don’t know,” she told Michigan Live. But Weaver doesn’t think the city can receive the help it needs without alerting federal officials to the urgency of the matter.

Gov. Snyder’s office has offered more than $10 million in financial assistance to pay for a temporary switch into the Detroit system while the city prepares to permanently switch to Lake Huron water. [2]

Parents of children affected by the high lead levels in Flint tap water and other Flint residents slammed the governor’s office, the state, the city, and 13 other public officials with a lawsuit in November for damages they’ve suffered because of the lead contamination. They allege in the suit that the city and state officials “deliberately deprived” them of their 14th Amendment rights by replacing formerly safe drinking water with a cheaper, highly toxic alternative.

The complaint states:

“For more than 18 months, state and local government officials ignored irrefutable evidence that the water pumped from the Flint River exposed [residents] to extreme toxicity. The deliberately false denials about the safety of the Flint River water was as deadly as it was arrogant.”

The plaintiffs claim their families have all experienced similar health problems from the lead-tainted water including skin lesions, hair loss, chemical-induced hypertension, vision loss, and depression.

The crisis has impacted poor residents especially hard, as they generally haven’t been able to afford to purchase the gallons and gallons of bottled water that those in better financial situations are still constantly scooping up.

They’ve been forced to drink straight from the tap and, when bathing their children, slowly pouring boiled water into the bathtub.


[1] The Huffington Post

[2] The Washington Post