Toxic Policy: The Impact of the Flint Water Crisis on the City’s Children

In 2015, reports of elevated lead levels in the city’s water supply put Flint, Michigan into the national spotlight. The state-appointed emergency manager’s 2014 decision to approve municipal use of water from the Flint River, in an attempt to help the cash strapped city cut costs, is thought by many to be the crucial factor in this crisis. Almost immediately after the change, Flint residents raised concerns about the odor, color, and taste of the water. The chemistry of the water from the Flint River caused lead to corrode in the pipes of homes and businesses. Lead is a neurotoxin that has a particularly damaging effect on children. Childhood exposure is linked to reduced developmental and biological processes impacting intelligence, behavior, and life achievement. A series of decisions made by the appointed leaders of the City of Flint caused this exposure to continue for more than two years, and contaminated water continues to be pumped into homes across the greater Flint area to this day.

A study led by Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., concluded that the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels increased following the switch to Flint River water. These impacts were most prominent in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods where lead pipes are more prevalent. The incidence of childhood poverty in the greater Flint area ranks near the bottom in the state of Michigan. 42 percent of children live in poverty in Flint compared to 16.2 percent statewide and 14.8 percent nationally. The study examined children younger than five years of age who had blood lead level tests at the Hurley Medical Center laboratory. The medical records included results from 736 children tested before the water source switch and 737 children who were tested after the switch occurred. In comparing the tests before the change to those after, the incidence of elevated blood lead levels (EBLL) increased from 2.4 percent to 4.9 percent.

In homes with high water lead levels, EBLL increased from 4.0 percent to 10.6 percent. Results also show clustering of EBLL incidents within Flint’s city limits and that areas outside of Flint did not show statistically significant increases in EBLL. The effects of lead contamination cannot be reversed; the children exposed to this neurotoxin will be impacted by this failure of governance for the rest of their lives.

The study also attempted to pinpoint other potential sources of the lead exposure including demolition projects, industrial operations, and remediation programs. No such confounders were identified. The data from the study points directly at the change in water supply as the source of contamination and reason for EBLLs in children.

On average, Flint children were at even greater risk from the effects of lead exposure. Lack of access to alternative water sources coupled with other stressors including poverty, violence, unemployment, and food insecurity put these children at a higher risk for adverse effects from lead exposure. These exposures have even been linked to epigenetic effects, which can impact future generations, meaning the grandchildren of exposed individuals will be impacted by this contamination event.

The challenges for Flint are far from over. Recently the State of Michigan announced that it will no longer pay the water bills of Flint residents. This means that citizens of Flint will be forced to pay for water they cannot drink. This national tragedy has yet to be remedied, and identifies many public policy questions. What regulations should be in place to protect citizens from decisions made by their governments? How much of a role should state environmental departments and the Environmental Protection Agency have in approving measures that could impact public health? How do we best reduce lead exposure across our nation? While discussions surrounding these questions have begun, there are still no concrete plans to address the Flint Water Crisis or prevent such crises from happening elsewhere in the United States. Decisions made by elected and appointed officials have consequences, and in the case of Flint, these consequences will follow its citizens for generations to come.

Article source: Hanna-Attisha, Mona, Jenny LaChance, Richard Casey Sadler, and Allison Champey Schnepp. “Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated with the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response.American Journal of Public Health 106 2 (2016): 283-290.

Featured photo: cc/(LindaParton, photo ID: 506793604, from iStock by Getty Images)

mdlindemulder@uchicago.edu'
Michael Dean Lindemulder

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