Flint, Michigan became the focus of international attention in 2014 and 2015 when lead in the municipal water had politicians and advocates crying foul and claiming that residents had been poisoned when officials switched from water sourced in Lake Huron to the Flint River. A new scientific study, however, but the claims to doubt. In a study by researchers Hernan Gomez (a professor of medicine and practicing physician in Flint) and Kim Dietrich, the lead investigator of the Cincinnati Lead Study, showed that the rise in lead levels among the city’s children was small.

In “Blood Lead Levels of Children in Flint, Michigan: 2006–2016,” the researchers show that it was but 0.11 micrograms per deciliter, which is within the range of normal fluctuation. A similar increase in lead of 0.12 micrograms per deciliter occurred randomly from 2010 to 2011. Statistically speaking, it is not therefore possible to distinguish the increase that occurred at the height of the contamination crisis from other random variations over the previous 10 years.

While there is no “safe” level of lead, neither the residents of Flint nor other Americans live in a lead-free environment. Lead is present in the blood of most people, including the children of Flint. While the level at which the Centers for Disease Control recommends medical treatment is 45 micrograms per deciliter, none of the children tested in Flint were found to be at that level.

In a New York Times article, titled “The Children of Flint were not ‘poisoned,’” authors Gomez and Dietrich write:

“Words are toxic, too. Labeling Flint’s children as ‘poisoned,’ as many journalists and activists have done since the city’s water was found to be contaminated with lead in 2014, unjustly stigmatizes their generation.

“Let’s be clear. It’s unacceptable that any child was exposed to drinking water with elevated lead concentrations. We know that lead is a powerful neurotoxicant, that there is no safe level, that the very young are particularly vulnerable and that long-term exposure to low to moderate levels of lead is associated with decreased I.Q.s and other cognitive and behavioral problems, including criminal behavior.

“But there is no reason to expect that what happened for a year and a half in Flint will inevitably lead to such effects. The casual use of the word “poisoned,” which suggests that the affected children are irreparably brain-damaged, is grossly inaccurate. In a city that already battles high poverty and crime rates, this is particularly problematic.”

Gomez and Dietrich wrote that 5 micrograms per deciliter is a “reference level,” which does not signal that a patient’s health is in jeopardy. But it does signal that testing the environment to ascertain why lead levels are high.

Before government officials switched the municipal water source, 2.2 percent of Flint children tested above the reference level. After the switch, the reference level rose to only 3.7 percent. In the late 1990s, nearly 45 percent of Flint’s children had lead levels above the reference point, but caused no alarm equivalent to that of 2015-16. According to Gomez and Dietrich, blood-lead levels for the city’s children hit a record low of 1.15 micrograms per deciliter i 2016.

The United States and other countries have made huge strides in the last 40 years in limiting human exposure to lead. The lead levels of the 1970s show that children were exposed then to much higher levels than those experienced by Flint residents during the recent crisis. In the latter 1970s, 88 percent of the American children tested showed a lead level of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter: double the current rate. In 2015, at the height of the crisis, children tested in Flint on average of 1.3 micrograms of lead per deciliter, which is down nearly half from the levels recorded as recently as 2006. In 2006, the level was 2.33 micrograms of lead per deciliter.

The water crisis occurred after officials ceased getting their supply through a pipeline from Detroit and thus sourcing the water from the Flint River. Lead came from pipes because municipal authorities did not properly treat the water with orthophosphate, an additive that limits corrosion. Flint switched back to water supplied by Detroit in October 2015. Having added orthophosphate, the water is safe. 

Lead pipes supply water to millions of Americans, who are not experiencing elevated lead levels. While there are approximately 3,180 places in the U.S. where blood-lead levels are twice that of Flint, those communities are not in danger. However, the crisis -- which centered around a study conducted by the now celebrity physician of Flint -- Mona Hanna-Atisha -- has meant an outpouring of federal funds and millions in donations that are being spent on a child development center, subsidized food, and salaries for nonprofit executives. Politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Jesse Jackson, have used the water crisis to denounce Gov. Rick Snyder and fellow Republicans for allegedly causing the supposed poisoning of Flint's residents. 
 

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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