In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. The decision was politically controversial and debated from the onset. Problems with the change stemmed from the fact that the Flint River water was not chemically treated with corrosion control measures. Therefore, as it entered houses via lead pipes, it became contaminated from pipes leaching lead. This is dangerous when that lead-filled water is used for household utilities and drinking.
The focus of media attention was directed towards its danger to children. In a news article from January 2016, Jamie Gaskin, the CEO of the United Way of Genesee County, stated that between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to lead-contaminated water. Hurley Medical Center in Flint performed research showing results that children with elevated blood-lead levels rose from 2.4% to 4.9%. Some areas even saw increases from 4.0% to 10.6%. However, research showing levels of lead in the average resident’s blood is tremendously difficult to obtain and would be hard to even research due to a vast variety of factors.
So how can it affect the children who have been exposed?
Although it varies slightly by laboratory, most consider the normal amount of lead in an adult patient’s blood to be less than 10 micrograms per deciliter. For children, the normal range is less than 5 micrograms/deciliter. Testing is usually performed when there are children in households with known lead piping, especially in urban districts, or if they show learning disabilities. Industrial workers should also be tested as well. These are the main populations at risk for higher than normal lead exposure. Additional methods of exposure include soil and paint; high exposure can lead to lead toxicity both acutely and over time. Acute symptoms would require a large amount of lead to enter the blood stream quickly. Symptoms may include, but are not limited to fatigue, muscle weakness, decreased sensation to touch, nausea, vomiting, anemia, shortness of breath, lethargy, and kidney damage.
Even more concerning, however, are the symptoms that develop over time in children from the early exposure. In addition to some of the previously mentioned symptoms, learning disabilities, such as memory and motor skills, can be prevalent. Lead is a neurotoxin which can produce irreversible damage. It has even been shown to have a correlation with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), aggression, and delinquency.
The updated reports from February 2016 indicate that Flint mayor Karen Weaver plans to begin replacement of 15,000 water service lines containing lead piping immediately at an estimated cost of $55 million. A great deal of attention both on the political controversy and scrutiny of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is still largely at play with many celebrity figures adding to the situation both in form of commentary and philanthropy. I’ll leave the political side for the politicians to discuss, as my concern revolves around ensuring we supply all families with the proper water supply, especially the innocent children of Flint, Michigan.
For the latest developments on the Flint water crisis, please visit https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html
Dr. Fiani is a neurosurgery resident with Desert Regional Medical Center’s Graduate Medical Education Program. He is from Michigan and a graduate of Michigan State University’s medical school.