The long shadow of Flint’s lead crisis
A year ago, a General Motors engine plant disconnected from the city of Flint’s water supply after discovering its mineral-laden water was causing newly manufactured car parts to rust. It was the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Last week, Flint and Michigan officials found themselves scrambling to solve a public health nightmare caused by the corrosive water leaching the lead out of the city’s aging water mains and lines.
There’s no shortage of irony in the latest blow to the struggling post-industrial city, whose declining economic fortunes gained notoriety in 1989 with the release of hometown filmmaker Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.” Nearly a century ago, a GM engineer discovered that lead in gasoline lowered engine noise, setting up decades of industrial and commercial use of the mineral with devastating health effects, especially in children.
Flint’s latest travails began in April 2014, when the impoverished city sought to save money by disconnecting from Detroit’s water system, which had been providing Flint with Lake Huron water. After months of protests about the substituted water from the Flint River by sickened local residents—who hired scientists to document elevated lead levels in their homes and children—Gov. Rick Snyder last week finally announced a $12 million plan to reconnect the city to Detroit’s system until a direct pipeline from Lake Huron is completed next summer.
The state acted only after water samples taken from three Flint schools tested positive for high amounts of lead. The Michigan crisis illustrates how lead can persist in the environment for decades. It also reveals the herculean effort required to mitigate the problem. While Flint’s water mains are cast iron, they are probably held together with lead-containing solder, officials said. Homes and buildings also connect to the water mains through lead-containing service lines.
A decade ago, when the District of Columbia attempted to remove its lead service lines, it actually increased lead exposure. “Cutting the pipe mobilizes the lead and makes the problem worse,” said Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Brad Wurfel.
Given the well-documented harms from lead, especially in young children, the government has been orchestrating cleanup efforts since the 1970s. It was removed from gasoline and paints, and legislation was passed in the 1990s to clean up old buildings and conduct systematic testing in children to identify hot spots.
But in recent years, those efforts have been sharply cut. This year the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s grants to states and cities were sufficient to clean up only 7,000 lowincome housing units. Its 2015 $110 million budget is only two-thirds of what it was 10 years ago, with congressional Republicans seeking to cut $35 million more.
Early childhood lead exposure puts lifelong limits on intelligence, reduces selfcontrol in teens, and leads to criminal behavior in adults, according to experts. (See related Data Points, p. 31).
“The consequences of lead poisoning are mindboggling,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a physician-researcher at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint who conducted studies on local children after Flint switched its water supply. “At 5 years old, they may need to be in a special education class. At 10, they may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At 15, they’re probably involved with the criminal justice system.”
Despite these concerns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s childhood lead-screening program gets little funding. The program’s budget was slashed from $29.2 million in fiscal 2011 to $2 million the next year. For 2014, program funding went back up, but only to $15 million. Those swings create uncertainty for states that rely on the CDC to pay for their programs.
Dr. Jennifer Lowry, director of the environmental health center at 301bed Children’s Mercy Kansas City (Mo.) hospital, participates in lead-surveillance efforts in two states. Missouri has maintained its program, but efforts in Kansas are slight and supported by intermittent grants rather than steady budget appropriations.
“Unfortunately, environmental health is not in the forefront of our funders’ minds,” Lowry said. “Congress isn’t interested.”
Students on Oct. 8 help unload bottled water donated to their Flint elementary school because of the lead crisis.