Flint Michigan Struggles with Likely Long-term Harm to Children from Lead in the WaterFeb 3, 2016
Under pressure to respond to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform opens a hearing today, February 3, 2016, to question state and federal officials about the breakdown in public health, which has endangered Flint residents, particularly its children.
Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Children's Hospital in Flint, Michigan was instrumental in spurring action in the crisis, with testing that showed elevated blood lead levels in Flint children. Dr. Hanna-Attisha believes about 8,000 children may be affected, the New York Times reports. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is working with other doctors and public health officials to determine the extent of the potential harm to the city's children from the lead-contaminated water supply and to secure the resources needed to address their medical problems and educational issues.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that lead is toxic to humans and can interfere with the development of nearly every system in a child's body. Lead exposure can affect a child's IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. Even low levels of lead in the blood can cause problems and exposure cannot be corrected.
Flint changed its water source in 2013, in an effort to save money, but the highly corrosive water from the Flint River eroded the city's iron water mains, turning water brown, and leaking lead into the water, according to CNN. Residents almost immediately began to complain about the color, odor, and taste of the water and they reported rashes and other symptoms, but for many months, their complaints were dismissed with official assurances that the water was safe.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her colleagues documented the spike in children's blood lead levels and their findings finally forced government officials to acknowledge the water crisis in fall 2015. Flint has since switched back to Lake Huron water and residents have been receiving bottled water, water filters and water test kits.
In recent tests, officials found that unfiltered tap water in Flint had levels of lead higher than what filters distributed to residents were designed to remove. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the United States Public Health Service, said 26 water samples, out of about 4,000, contained lead at levels higher than 150 parts per billion, according to the Times. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that lead in drinking water should be below 15 parts per billion. Water filters have been distributed, but health officials recommend that pregnant women and children under five use bottled water for drinking and food preparation.
Lead exposure is particularly dangerous for young children and fetuses because their brains and nervous systems are developing. Dr. Hanna-Attisha and other doctors and public health officials are focusing their efforts on children five and younger, the Times reports. Many of these children could suffer long-term health problems and learning difficulties when they enter school.
Flint residents are angry at the failure of officials on all levels to address the water crisis more quickly and effectively. They are demanding that the city's water supply pipes be replaced and some activists say residents should not have to pay for water that is not safe to use.