Virginia Tech researcher accuses state health officials of "hiding" data on Flint's water

Dec 21, 2015

Updated 10:30 p.m.

Virginia Tech researchers accuse Michigan health officials of trying to “stonewall” the investigation into lead in Flint’s drinking water.

Dr. Marc Edwards, of Virginia Tech University, seen here showing the difference in the corrosiveness of Flint River water vs Detroit water
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, are available online. 

Marc Edwards says newly obtained internal documents show Department of Health and Human Services employees tried to hide evidence that matched the increased lead levels in children found by doctors at Hurley Medical Center.

“There are emails that show they reproduced the Hurley analysis very early on, and in a document they said is not to be distributed to the public, they noted they found the same thing as Hurley but they didn’t tell anyone,” says Edwards.

An email from a Michigan Department of Community Health data analyst on July 28, 2015, discussing blood lead level results in children in Flint in the summer of 2014.
Credit FOIA from Virginia Tech / Flint Water Study

Edwards says state health department officials were following the lead of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in the handling of Flint’s water crisis.

"The health department stayed silent even as MDEQ was telling reporters that the blood lead data was showing no spike whatsoever. We now have a document from July that was sent to the governor's office and the director of the health department that showed that in 2014 that children's blood lead had spiked in the summer," says Edwards.

A report prepared in late July 2015 by a state health department employee shows three months in 2014 when kids' blood lead levels spiked in Flint. From documents obtained by FOIA by Virginia Tech.
Credit FOIA from Virginia Tech / Flint Water Study

The MDEQ initially downplayed the importance of the data from Virginia Tech and Hurley Medical Center.

The data suggested elevated lead levels, in the drinking water of some Flint homes and the blood of Flint children, could be linked to the city’s switch from Detroit water to the Flint River in April, 2014. Researchers claim the corrosive nature of the river and a lack of treatment resulted in damage to pipes, which then started leaching lead into the drinking water.

This excerpt from an email shows the state health department turning to DEQ for some guidance:

An email from MDCH's Mikelle Robinson describing a call with the MDEQ on September 23, 2015. (Emphasis added by Virginia Tech)
Credit FOIA from Virginia Tech / Flint Water Study

There is no safe level of lead. Exposure to lead can have serious health effects, especially in young children.

In September, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha at Hurley Medical Center announced the results of her research – that the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels in Flint nearly doubled after the switch to the Flint River.  But state health department officials tried to discredit her – even though we now know their own data agreed with Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings. The health department later said their data was in agreement with Hanna-Attisha's.

An email from Dave Murray (at the time he was Deputy Press Secretary for Governor Rick Snyder), to MDEQ and MDCH employees, and others, on September 24, 2015. Emphasis added by Virginia Tech.
Credit FOIA from Virginia Tech / Flint Water Study

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a written statement this afternoon defending the agency's handling of the blood lead level data. In the statement, the agency insists it "consistently provided information regarding blood lead levels in the city of Flint."  

When initially looking at the citywide and county elevated blood lead level numbers, the increase appeared to be consistent with the routine seasonal fluctuation seen in the summer months. It wasn’t until the Hurley report came out that our epidemiologists took a more in-depth look at the data by ZIP code, controlling for seasonal variation, and confirmed an increase outside of normal trends. As a result of this process, we have determined that the way we analyze data needs to be thoroughly reviewed. Additionally, Gov. Rick Snyder has created a Flint Water Task Force to review all city, state and federal responses and actions and is expected to make recommendations moving forward.  

The statement went on to say DHHS will continue to work to ensure "appropriate case management and follow up is occurring in Flint."

After 18 months, the city switched back to Detroit water in October. However, there is still concern lead may continue to be a problem, and Flint residents are advised to continue using filters or drink only bottled water.