Health risk, lead

Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan

    posted on          2016-07-11 09:54:51, USA

Posted by: Dr. Thomas Dydek, PhD, DABT, PE

As most of you already know, drinking water supplies in Flint, Michigan have been found to contain elevated levels of lead. How did this happen? Historically, Lake Huron had been the source of that cityís drinking water (supplied by the City of Detroit). In April of 2014, however, City and State of Michigan officials chose to begin using the Flint River as the drinking water source. It turned out that water from the river was more acidic than the Lake Huron water. Because of this, it began to corrode the lead pipes that supply many older houses in Flint. The more acidic water leached lead from the pipes and into the water that ended up in Flint residentsí homes. The Time Magazine cover story in their February 1, 2016 edition gives a good overall background of this situation.

It has been known at least since Roman times that lead exposure can cause adverse human health effects. See the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyís website for a good overview of the history of lead poisoning. Most notable of these are effects on the central nervous system. Children absorb more than five times as much lead in drinking water compared to adults and are thus more susceptible to the harmful effects. Even small amounts of childhood lead exposure have been linked with reduced IQ, behavioral problems, and even with violent behavior in later life.

While much has been made in the media about this environmental crisis, I had not seen much in the way of hard data concerning lead levels in children in Flint. Currently, the most commonly used measure of lead intoxication is the level of lead in a personís blood. A study just published in the American Journal of Public Health provides some information to address that lack of data. That article shows the percentage of children In Flint with elevated (> 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood) levels of lead in their blood was 2.4% before the drinking water source was changed. Eighteen months after the change, that percentage had gone up to 4.9%. There were no other significant increases in lead exposure for the children of Flint over this time period. Thus the contaminated drinking water is the most likely source for the higher percentage of children with elevated lead levels.
The journal article and other recent studies have pointed out several important facts: 1) the children of Flint, Michigan are especially at risk of the adverse effects of lead; 2) lead poisoning is still a danger to US public health; and 3) in many cities with aging water supply infrastructure (i.e., lead pipes in the drinking water distribution system), the potential for widespread lead poisoning exists. Therefore, this may not be a problem confined to Flint, Michigan.

Addendum, March 8, 2016: I just heard that residents of Flint are using bottled water to take showers and baths. Iím sure that is being driven by fear, but the truth is that lead in water is not absorbed through intact human skin. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is safe to bathe or shower in water even if the lead levels are above drinking water standards.

Dr. Dydek has served as an expert witness in many cases involving lead exposure. If you are a person who believes you have been poisoned by lead or an attorney working on a lead exposure case, contact Dr. Dydek.

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