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article imageFlint, Michigan: Lead-tainted water unsafe to drink, doctors say

By Megan Hamilton     Sep 26, 2015 in Environment
Flint - Scary news out of Flint, Michigan shows that when the city switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River for its drinking water, blood tests revealed that the tap water residents are now drinking is causing elevated lead levels in the city's children.
When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher and the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center headed a recent study, she compared 2013 blood tests taken over a span of a few months with recent samples taken over a similar time span this year, The Daily Beast reports. In the time between, the city had switched from Lake Huron to treated water from the Flint River for its drinking source.
What the researchers found was shocking.
The amount of lead in the water was twice as much as what's considered to be acceptable. Attisha and her team tested the specific zip codes that had been done in the recent Virginia Tech study. They found excessive blood levels in children and babies, NBC News reports.
They advise senior citizens, children, and pregnant women to stop drinking Flint water right now, or risk irreversible damage, including memory loss or lowered IQ.
The Daily Beast noted the consequences, especially for young children, can be dire. Symptoms can include developmental delays, irritability, sluggishness, gastrointestinal problems such as poor appetite, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Newborns can experience slowed development, including slowed growth.
Doctors say this will affect children not just now, but for decades to come. They are advising the public to use lead filters for their tap water, NBC News.
Mark Valacak, head of the Genesee County Health Department, said just looking at a child won't identify any of the issues. A blood test is the only way to know for sure if there are excessive amounts of lead.
Results of the Virginia Tech study showed that Flint River water was specifically causing lead in old pipes to be released.
"I was hoping not to find anything, but what we found ... is concerning," Hanna-Attisha told The Detroit Free Press. She also leads the pediatric residency program at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine.
"This is not something you mess around with," she said. "Our population already has so many issues from poverty, from unemployment, from violence."
State officials say their review of blood test results haven't shown the same increase that Hanna-Attisha found. They also say that water tests have shown lead within federally accepted levels.
The results that Hanna-Attisha examined were from blood samples of kids in Genesee County, and were taken before and after the city ended its water contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and began utilizing water from the Flint River. Previously, the city had obtained its' water from Lake Huron.
In the 20 months prior to Sept. 15, 2013, the number of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels — 5 micrograms per deciliter or more — leapt from 2.1 percent to 4.0 percent between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15 of this year. In certain Zip Codes, the change was even more drastic, she noted — climbing from 2.5 percent of kids tested to 6.3 percent.
Pediatricians often conduct blood tests as part of routine lead-level testing, especially among children who are on Medicaid. Therefore, Hanna-Attisha could compare 1,746 test results from Flint children against 1,640 results from elsewhere in Genesee County. Kids living in Genesee County outside of Flint showed no significant increase in blood-lead levels.
Health officials say no lead levels are safe, and although levels can fall in individuals over time, the damage is permanent, The Free Press notes.
If Hanna-Attisha's research is correct, the uptick in Flint disrupts years of progress in reducing dangerous levels of lead.
State data shows that the percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has been falling for years. In 2013, 3.6 percent of Flint children younger than six had elevated blood-lead levels, compared with 3.9 percent state-wide.
Although Hanna-Attisha's review didn't try to determine the cause, "we can't think of another reason" for the trend other than the change in Flint's water source.
So why is the new water source contributing to the elevated lead levels?
It's not that water from the Flint River is laden with lead, rather it's the effect the water has on the lead pipes that some 15,000 homes in the city are reported to have, according to The Daily Beast.
Volunteer researchers from Virginia Tech University have been conducting ongoing work regarding the safety of Flint drinking water. Dr. Marc Edwards, their lead investigator and a 2007 MacArthur fellow, has found that treated Flint River water is 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. This causes the treated water to leach lead from soldering and pipes.
A group of volunteer researchers from Virginia Tech University have been doing ongoing work on the safety of Flint drinking water. Their lead investigator, 2007 MacArthur fellow Dr. Marc Edwards, has noted that treated Flint River water is 19 times as corrosive as water from Lake Huron. This causes the treated water to leach lead from pipes and soldering.
In another report, the Virginia Tech team directly analyzed Flint city water and found that 42 percent of the 120 samples they collected had lead levels greater than five parts per billion (ppb), and 20 percent had levels of about 15 ppd, which is the cut-off at which the Environmental Protection Agency requires action.
No one knows yet how this problem is going to be resolved. Hanna-Attisha said that city officials informed her a return to Lake Huron water isn't financially feasible for the city. Mayor Dayne Walling is asking the state for $10 million in funds to replace lead water service pipes.
For the time being, officials are urging residents to use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula, The Associated Press reports. The city will continue to draw water from the river while a pipeline is being built to Lake Huron.
On Friday, Flint's public schools told students to bring bottled water for the time being and avoid the drinking fountains due to the risk of lead. Schools are seeking donations of bottled water.
City officials are recommending residents use home filters and urge people to flush cold water lines for five minutes. Over the next 30 to 60 days, officials hope to change methods being used for water treatment. By doing this, they believe corrosion caused by the water will be reduced.
More than 4,000 gallons of bottled water have been donated for mixing infant formula.
NBC News notes that a gofundme account has been set up by the Virginia Tech group to purchase water filters for Flint residents.
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