High Lead Levels In Michigan Kids After City Switches Water Source
Doctors are finding elevated levels of lead in the children in Flint, Mich., and local tap water is the likely cause.
That's the latest alarming news to come out of the city, which switched its water source about a year and a half ago.
A pediatrician with Hurley Medical Center analyzed lead levels of hundreds of children. She compared blood tests before and after April 2014. That's when Flint, unable to come to an agreement on a short-term contract with Detroit, quit buying water from its system and signed on with a new system that will draw water from Lake Huron.
But that system won't be online until next year. So in the interim, with assurances from the state that it would be safe, the city decided to pump water from the Flint River.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha's research found that the percentage of Flint children 5 years and younger with elevated lead levels nearly doubled after the switch, from 2.1 percent to 4 percent.
"My research shows that lead levels have gone up," Hanna-Attisha says. "I cannot say it's from the water. But that's, you know, the thing that has happened."
A Cascade Of Problems
The news did not surprise Lee Anne Walters, who suspected the water had something to do with health problems in her 4-year-old son, Gavin.
"I kept talking to the doctors, trying to figure out why he wasn't growing," she says. "He was 27 pounds at 4 years old. His hair was thinning, breaking out in rashes."
Complaints about foul-smelling, discolored water began soon after the city started drawing water from the Flint River. In the summer of 2014, the city issued a notice for residents to boil their water because of E. coli contamination.
Then the city was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because of high levels of a disinfectant byproduct called total trihalomethanes — an unintended consequence from all the chlorine the city had to use to kill the E. coli.
Walters says her whole family broke out in rashes, and they stopped drinking the water in December.
Then, in February of this year, the city tested her water for lead.
"And I got a frantic phone call from the water department telling me to please make sure my kids didn't drink the water, don't mix their juice with it, because they had never seen a number that high for lead," she says.
After that, Walters decided to take Gavin in to be tested for lead.
He'd been tested before the city switched its water source. At that time, he had a level of 2 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. After the switch, his level was 6.5.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a level of 5 is considered "much higher" than that found in most children. It also says there is no safe level of lead exposure — and the effects, like lower IQ, are irreversible.
A Failure Of Government?
The day after Hanna-Attisha released her findings, the city put out a lead advisory, urging people to flush their pipes, install inexpensive filters, and use cold water for mixing baby formula.
"As a father, I want every family and household in the city of Flint to be safe and secure," Mayor Dayne Walling said at a press conference to announce the advisory.
Over the summer, researchers from Virginia Tech found that Flint River water is highly corrosive. That means when it comes into contact with lead from service lines, household pipes or solder, it eats away at the lead and sends it right to people's faucets.
City officials and state regulators say they're now putting together a corrosion control plan to reduce lead exposure.
"Flint is the only city in America that I'm aware of that does not have a corrosion control plan," said Virginia Tech's Marc Edwards, who led the research.
Edwards also uncovered lead contamination in Washington, D.C. He says Flint's lead levels are not as high, and the exposure period is not as long as it was in that city. But he has some harsh criticism of city and state officials for how they've handled the Flint situation.
"It was clearly a failure of government agencies to do their job to protect the public," says Edwards, citing the absence of a corrosion control plan from the outset.
A draft report from the EPA that was obtained by the ACLU of Michigan also takes the city and state to task.
"Prior to April 30, 2014, the City of Flint purchased finished water from the City of Detroit which contained orthophosphate, a treatment chemical used to control lead and copper levels in the drinking water," the report read, adding that the treatment was discontinued after the switch to Flint River water.
"In accordance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), all large systems ... are required to install and maintain corrosion control treatment for lead and copper. In the absence of any corrosion control treatment, lead levels in drinking water can be expected to increase," the report continued.
A Solution May Be Near
But officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality dispute the findings of the draft report. MDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel says the report was the work of a "rogue employee" and promised the final report — not yet released — would tell a much different story.
"You have to have to do a full year of studying" the water chemistry as it behaves across the system before implementing corrosion control, Wurfel says, adding that's the only way to know how much phosphate to add to the water.
An announcement about the corrosion control plan is expected soon. Meanwhile, city officials are showing increasing interest in returning to Detroit's water system — something that even a few days ago they dismissed as economically unfeasible for the cash-strapped city.
Whatever the solution, residents like Walters say they hope the city can reach one soon.
"I want them to take responsibility," Walters says. "I want them to quit poisoning their citizens."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The water in Flint, Mich., is probably raising lead levels in young kids. That's the latest alarming news to come out of the city, which switched its source of tap water a year and a half ago, triggering a chain of problems. Sarah Hulett, of Michigan Radio, has the story.
SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: Lee Anne Walters has been living kind of a nightmare for the last several months.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).
LEE ANNE WALTERS: Go inside, buddy.
HULETT: At her house on the edge of this blue-collar city, we meet her 4-year-old son, Gavin.
WALTERS: Hey, Gavin?
GAVIN WALTERS: What?
WALTERS: What do we say about the water?
GAVIN: Don't drink the water. The water is bad. We want clean water now.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).
WALTERS: They've been to enough rallies. (Laughter).
HULETT: Water quality became an issue here in Flint after April of 2014. That's when the city, in a dispute with Detroit, quit buying its water and instead signed on with a new system that will draw water from Lake Huron. Thing is, that new system won't be online until next year. So in the interim, with assurances from the state that it would be safe, the city decided to pump water from the Flint River. The problems were immediate. First E. coli then dangerously high levels of a chemical from all the chlorine the city had to treat the water with to kill the E. coli. Lee Anne Walters says her entire family started breaking out in rashes. But it wasn't the worst of it. In February, the city tested her water for lead, and then she got a frantic phone call...
WALTERS: ...From the water department, telling me to please make sure my kids didn't drink the water, make sure they're not - you know, don't mix their juice with it, don't give them any water because they had never seen a number that high for lead.
HULETT: Then she took Gavin in to be tested for lead. He'd been tested before the city switched its water source. He had a level of two. That's two micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. After the switch, his level was 6.5. The CDC says a five is much higher than most children. It also says there's no safe level of lead exposure, and the effects, like lower IQ, are irreversible.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician at Hurley Children's Hospital, which processes all the city's lead tests. She compared lead levels in kids before and after the city switched its water source.
MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: My research shows that lead levels have gone up. I cannot say it's from the water, but that's, you know, the thing that has happened.
HULETT: Hanna-Attisha found that the rate of high lead levels nearly doubled citywide after the switch. She released her findings late last week. The next day, the city put out a lead advisory urging people to flush their pipes and install inexpensive filters.
Dayne Walling is Flint's mayor.
DAYNE WALLING: You know, as a father, I want every family and household in the city of Flint to be safe and secure.
HULETT: Walling and state officials say that means coming up with what's called a corrosion control plan. Here's the thing, the Flint River isn't full of lead, but the water is highly corrosive, much more so than the Detroit water Flint used to buy. Basically, the water is eating the lead from service lines and solder as it makes its way to people's faucets.
Marc Edwards is an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech who has looked at lead contamination in several cities, including Flint. He says Flint isn't the worst he's seen, but it's not good, either. He says the city should have been treating the water from the outset to make it less corrosive.
MARC EDWARDS: It was clearly a failure of government agencies to do their job to protect the public.
HULETT: State officials insist they've done everything according to the law. But for families with children who have elevated lead levels, that assurance likely offers little comfort. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.