Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Education, good nutrition, and health care can attenuate some effects of the water crisis.
Loui Brezzel’s young son has autism, and she says his learning disabilities have gotten worse over the last six months. One of Leeanne Walters’ 5-year-old twins was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Melissa Mays says her 17-year-old son, a straight-A student, has been lately complaining of brain fog and memory loss.
These are just a few of the parents I’ve spoken with who’ve lived through the water crisis in Flint, watching their kids develop mental issues that weren’t there before the city switched its water supply to the corrosive Flint River in 2014. The percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels—at or higher than five mcg/dL—doubled from 2.4 to 4.9 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to research by Mona Hanna-Attisha at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center.
"I can't save my son," Walters thought when she found when the other twin had 6.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in his system. "But what about the rest of the kids in Flint?"
But some of the effects of the water crisis may be salvageable, at least from a public health perspective. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress that there is no “safe” level of lead for children, and studies have linked children’s lead exposure to behavioral disorders and lower IQs, experts like the University of Cincinnati neuropsychologist Kim Dietrich (who helped the CDC set its lead parameters) say that Flint children aren’t necessarily facing permanent mental damage. Scientific American reports:
… Dietrich and others say that children below 45 mcg/dL are generally not treated for lead poisoning and children at 15 mcg/dL and below are not likely to suffer lasting impacts of relatively short-term exposure like those experienced by the children of Flint. “We don’t like to see kids at 10[mcg/dL], because it indicates they’ve been exposed,” Dietrich says. “But after the water problem is remedied, the blood lead concentrations will fall back to background levels in six to 12 months.”
He adds, “There are very few studies done for very low levels of exposure. I have been researching this problem for over 30 years and there is nothing in the data that suggests that children will have negative impacts of short-term low-level exposure over the long term.”
That doesn’t mean Flint children aren’t at risk. One of the reasons it’s hard to link low-level lead exposure with long-term neurological problems is that there are tons of confounding factors, such as poverty, low-quality schools and housing, and a lack of good nutrition. These are things faced by many kids in Flint, where the poverty rate is 40 percent.
“The real problem is that the greatest burden [of lead exposure] generally falls on communities least equipped to deal with it, places that are already economically at the bottom of the food chain,” Stuart Shalat, director of the Division of Environmental Health at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, told Scientific American. “What we need to focus on is doing everything we can to see that every child has the opportunity to develop to his or her potential.”
That means parents like Brezzel, Mays, and Walters can take some heart: If kids get the services and resources to help them combat the things that make them susceptible to lead’s effects, then this lead crisis shouldn’t define their destiny.
“[I]t's all about that other stuff that will promote healthy kids and child development,” Hanna-Attisha told M Live. That means access to early childhood education, which can help kids with development delays catch up with peers, nutritious diets full of iron, calcium, and Vitamin C, which can reduce lead absorption, and regular check-ups with pediatrician to catch problems early.
On its own, Flint lacks the resources it needs to ensure that all children get those services on a long-term—ideally, permanent—basis. That’s why it’s so essential that the city gets the funds it needs from state and federal lawmakers. Right now, a $100 million federal aid package is being held up in Congress by a Republican senator from Utah. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has said he’s still waiting for the state legislature to approve another $165 million in aid for Flint.
And Flint will need even more than that. As WIRED put it, “There’s only one way for Flint to treat its lead poisoning problem: become the city its citizens always deserved.” That’s a huge transformation that residents are eager to undertake. And they’re still waiting for the support to do it.