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Federal experts, state probing possible connection between rashes and Flint water

Mar 3, 2016

Part of an EPA flyer that's been distributed recently to Flint residents.
Credit USEPA

Federal experts are helping the state investigate rashes in Flint. The federal team is with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and they're doing what's called an ACE investigation (Assessment of Chemical Exposure).

The ACE team arrived in the city last week. It’s looking into possible connections between skin problems and the water in Flint.

It’s something lots of people have been wondering about.

People in Flint have been reporting rashes since the city switched to the Flint River for its drinking water in April 2014.

Almer Jenkins lives in Flint with her two daughters and her two year old grandson, Zahmir. She says he was taking baths in the water until last summer, when they noticed he was scratching a lot.

“His skin was, totally, from head to toe, was messed up. We took him to the doctor, and they said, stop putting him in the Flint water. And they sent him to a dermatologist to get his skin back together,” she says.

Ever since, she says they’ve been only bathing him with bottled water. And she says she does the same thing herself. She doesn’t shower in Flint water.

“It had me itching. My skin’s sensitive and I can’t get in there anyway. I just pour a lot of water out of those jugs and fill them up and heat them up and throw them in the tub,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins says things have improved for her and her grandson.

“His skin looks so much better now. He’s like a little kid,” she says.

The state of Michigan and the Environmental Protection Agency both say it’s ok to bathe or shower in unfiltered water in Flint. But they say you should keep your kids from drinking the bath water.

Terri Malin with her grandkids, Holly and Cameron.
Credit Photo courtesy of Terri Malin

Residents have a lot of questions

Lately, Terri Malin has been wondering if her skin problems are because of something in the water. She teaches in the Mt. Morris school system.

In July 2014, she moved into a house in Flint.

“And by the end of the month my body was completely covered in a rash. My rash actually got infected on my feet, and I got sores, and had to go to a wound clinic which caused nerve damage. And I ended up not even being able to start teaching in the fall,” she says.

She ended up on long-term disability, and she says she still has trouble walking.

“And it was very serious and very severe and I was really ill and I still walk with a cane.”

She says none of the ten doctors she’s been to has been able to figure out what triggered her rash.

Malin says she's been showering at the houses of family members who live outside Flint the past few months. She says earlier this week, a couple of guys showed up at her door with a flyer from the EPA, which said it was safe to bathe in the water. But she's skeptical.

"Would these people doing the investigations, would they take a bath in this water? Once you trust someone and you take their word, and you find out that it was wrong, how can you really be sure?" says Malin.

Investigations focusing on current rash complaints

Now, the state health department and this team of federal experts are investigating some of these rash complaints.

Dr. Eden Wells is the chief medical executive with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“I’ve heard it from all sorts of age groups, all different folks from across the city. So we really would like to do everything we can do to find out an answer,” says Wells.

She says they’re looking into current rashes that people have gotten since the city switched back to Detroit water in October 2015.

“Because of some concerns that if we switched back to the original water source and we’re getting the water as close back to as it was before April 2014, the issue of the rashes seems to not have alleviated,” she says.

She says they don’t have data on rashes that started before last fall.

Jennifer Eisner, a MDHHS spokesperson, confirmed by email that the state has not been tracking rash-related complaints until January 23, 2016:

There are many different causes of rash, and rash is typically not reportable in the State of Michigan unless it is sign of a reportable disease. We did not track numbers of rash-related calls prior to January 23rd. Since that time, MDHHS has received 121 rash-related calls or referrals, relating to a total of 158 individuals with rash or rash-related concerns. Of these, 71 individuals meet the MDHHS rash investigation definition for current rash.

1.     Place of residence supplied by Flint city water (or other significant exposure location), and

2.      Current rash with onset on or after October 16, 2015, or existing rash with obvious worsening on or after October 16, 2015

3.      No alternative medical diagnosis that would clearly be unrelated to water exposure (i.e. chickenpox)

 

Dr. Wells says the state wanted help, and so they requested assistance from the four-person federal team. The team consists of two epidemiologists, an environmental health officer, and a public health analyst.

Captain Renee Funk is on the ACE team. She says the investigation has several parts.

“One is questionnaires for anyone with a rash complaint, then we do water testing of the water at their home. Then, we recommend they see a primary care physician and also a dermatologist to try to get an accurate medical diagnosis about their rash,” she says.

Funk says then, they’ll analyze all that data and try to figure out what’s going on. She hopes to wrap up the investigation by early spring.

The state health department says anyone in Flint who's concerned about a rash can call 211 or ask their doctor to get in touch with the investigation team.

Lindsey Smith and Steve Carmody contributed reporting to this story.