Last year, Flint ended five decades of service from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The city’s going to take its water from a new pipeline from Lake Huron, but that won’t be ready until some time next year.
In the meantime, Flint decided that rather than continuing to pay for Detroit water, it would get its drinking water from the Flint River.
Almost immediately after making that change, residents began complaining about the way their drinking water looked, smelled and tasted. There were issues with the chemicals used to treat the river water.
And now a study performed by pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Hurley Medical Center has found an increase in the number of Flint children who have been lead poisoned since the switch to the Flint River water.
Hanna-Attisha says she looked at the blood lead levels of Flint residents from before and after the switch, and noticed that the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels just about doubled.
“Pre-switch percent of children with elevated blood (lead) levels was 2.1%, and then after the switch it was 4%,” she says.
She adds that the data for children in the rest of Genessee County, which is sticking with Detroit water until the new pipeline is ready, showed no statistical change in blood lead levels.
Even more troubling, Hanna-Attisha says that state and national data showed blood lead levels in children dropping consistently year over year before the switch due to, “great public health efforts and education efforts and lead abatement efforts.”
“Whenever you see that percentage staying the same or that percentage increasing, that is a red flag,” she says.
There has been some concern surrounding Flint’s infrastructure and how it affects the quality of the water, but Hanna-Attisha says that’s not the key factor here.
“Infrastructure has a role, but this infrastructure hasn’t changed. It was old then, it is old now, but these levels have increased. So what’s changed is... the water,” she says.
She explains that the Flint River water is more corrosive than the water from Lake Huron, so it is aging Flint’s existing water infrastructure and causing the leaching of lead from these pipes.
According to Hanna-Attisha, “mountains and mountains of research” show that lead poisoning is linked with decreased IQ, behavioral issues, ADHD-like symptoms, and higher rates of violent offenses and incarcerations.
“It’s just one of the absolute worst things that you could do for the life course of a child,” Hanna-Attisha says.
The State Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Governor's office have downplayed and in some cases attempted to discredit Hanna-Attisha’s findings, but she isn’t swayed.
“I think it’s fascinating, because if you look at their data, it pretty much shows the exact same thing. Every year there was a decrease in the total percentage of kids with elevated blood lead levels, and then the year after the switch it jumped up.” she says. “You can’t fight the numbers, the numbers are there, everything is consistent.”
Hanna-Attisha advises that children, formula-fed infants and pregnant mothers in the area avoid tap water.
As for everyone else, she suggests running the water for five or so minutes before using it and only using cold water for cooking.
Here's a quick explainer for those trying to get a better understanding of the complicated water issues in Flint.
-Ryan Grimes, Stateside