Lead in the Water

It’s my last semester at SPH – which is crazy, but not as crazy as the current state of affairs in Flint, MI. By now, it’s made national headlines that there has been lead contamination in the water in Flint. Such a tragic public health emergency is sadly expected in many corners of the world, but comes as a huge shock to those of us living the high-income country lifestyle!

With all the hysteria, memes, politics and controversy surrounding this nightmare, I just wanted to do a quick post highlighting the facts so far, and of course, giving a shout out to SPH’s own Dr. Eden Wells (Chief Medical Executive for Michigan), to put it all in perspective.

The issue began when the city decided to switch water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River…which, as the figure below shows, lead (no pun intended) to the following:


From MLive’s “Here’s how that toxic lead gets into Flint water”

This has actually been going on for quite some time; immediately following this switch, residents actually began complaining about the noticeable differences in their water, and demanded something be done….and four months after the switch, Flint residents were advised to boil their water as a fecal coliform bacteria had been discovered in some areas. GM actually said that they would use a different water source because they thought the water too corrosive for their manufacturing needs. It got to a point, around this time last year, that the city had to inform residents that there was threat of TTHM (trihalomethanes) – chemicals that could cause major organ damage over years. Following that, Detroit offered to sell their water back to Flint, but Flint refused. Things continue to escalate, and September of 2015, a professor from Virginia Tech weighs in saying that lead may be in issue, but Flint says that their levels are in check and that they will introduce a new plan in 2016…meanwhile, the TTHM levels have dropped to acceptable levels. However, just a few weeks later, a water test showed high levels of lead, and data records showed infants and children having increased lead levels since switching water sources. It was finally on October 1st that the city declared a public health emergency and people were told to drink bottled water…and eventually, the city is now working to switch water sources back to Detroit.

October was three months ago…so why does it seem like there’s a lot more hubbub now? More reports have surfaced, and experts from various fields have weighed in. The newest discovery is the potentially related Legionnaire’s disease outbreaks and in this week alone, Dr. Wells has actually been called in to help sort out the details in this public health crisis. She’s been on the news and quoted in multiple articles, alleviating fears and working with residents on next steps.

The doctor who sounded the alarm on the crisis – Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha – is working with others in the state to figure out a plan of action for all those who have been infected. As of now, Dr. Wells said in an interview she did that so far they have seen 100 children with levels >5ug/dl and she noted that “lead at any level can be associated with decreases in IQ, behavioral disorders, even an association with certain juvenile delinquency as these children get older.”

Here’s a quick snapshot of lead poisoning from the CDC:

In summary…seeing Dr. Wells on the front line this past week has served as a reminder that SPH is a cozy bubble where we learn, discuss, and debate ideology, but that the real world is just a few months away. What’s happening in Flint serves as a reminder that health disparity is just as real an issue here at home as it is in the various low/middle income countries discussed in my courses. It’s a reminder that water, and healthcare, should be basic rights, and we owe it to ourselves to be vigilant and knowledgeable about the public health issues happening in our own backyard.



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