What Will Happen To Flint’s Lead-Exposed Children?

The crisis will likely have negative long term effects for young kids

Jan 15, 2016 at 4:50 PM ET

The National Guard arrived in Flint, Michigan this week to distribute bottled water and filters to residents—more than eighteen months after the city’s water was contaminated with lead. The crisis is finally being taken seriously—Michigan Governor Rick Snyder asked Obama to declare a federal emergency in Flint on Thursday, and the state attorney general opened an investigation into the crisis. But, for the citizens—especially children—who’ve been exposed to lead, the damage may already be done.

There is no effective treatment for children with elevated levels of lead in their blood, according to Dr. Nanhua Zhang, a faculty member at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who studied lead-exposure in children. Zhang told Vocativ that the only real strategy is prevention, which, of course, it’s too late for in Flint.

Lead exposure has numerous adverse health effects, both mental and physical. “Besides the effect of lead on children’s academic performances, research has shown other problems as well,” Zhang said. Possible health complications include anemia, hypertension and immunotoxicity, among others.

Flint’s problems began in April 2014 when the city switched the source of its drinking water, pulling from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron. Water from the river—a local joke because of its filth— is much more corrosive than the water from Huron. Residents began noticing an odd taste and smell in their water almost immediately after the change.

But it wasn’t just dirty: researchers from Virginia Tech found elevated levels of lead in the water, which was likely leaching out of pipes worn away by the corrosive river water. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver first declared the State of Emergency on December 14, 2015, while Michigan Governor Rick Snyder echoed the call last Tuesday. The city switched back to its old water source in October, but it would appear Flint’s troubles are far from over.

According to the World Health Organization, there is “no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe,” and childhood exposure to lead is thought to cause roughly 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities per year. Meanwhile, the level designated as being safe for adults is five micrograms per deciliter.

“Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body,” the Centers for Disease Control web page on lead says. “Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.”

Once in the blood stream, lead is distributed to the brain, liver, kidneys and bones, according to the WHO. The element gets stored in the teeth and bones and gradually accumulates over time. Exposure to large amounts of lead over a short period of time can result in abdominal pain, constipation, memory loss and pain or tingling in hands and feet, among other issues. Those exposed to lead over longer periods of time may be at greater risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney damage and reduced fertility.

Children are much more at risk than adults, the WHO says, to adverse effects stemming from lead exposure. Longer term effects could include neurological deficits, mental retardation and behavioral problems.

Last September, doctors from the Hurley Medical Center presented their findings on a rise in blood lead levels in children living within Flint zip codes. One child surveyed, 12-month-old Makayla, who was drinking formula mixed with tap water, was found to have a lead level of six micrograms per deciliter—more than the allowance recommended for adults.

The doctors concluded that although Makayla was asymptomatic, she would likely suffer from learning disabilities, delinquent behavior as well as other health risks, down the road.

A study published in March 2013 in the American Journal of Public Health essentially backs such claims up. In it, researchers, including Nanhua Zhang, tracked the effects of lead on academic achievement in children in Detroit’s public schools from 2008 to 2010. The researchers found that children with increased blood lead levels—below even the 5 micrograms per deciliter benchmark—were more likely to do worse on portions of the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP), including math, science and reading, and early lead exposure was negatively associated with achievement in elementary and middle school.

“Because there is no current effective treatment of children with elevated blood lead concentrations, the control of lead poisoning should focus on primary prevention of lead exposure in children and the development of special education programs for students with lead poisoning,” the study recommended.

An outcry from citizens and activists has been growing over recent months—with many pointing the blame at Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder. Under Michigan’s controversial “emergency manager” laws, Snyder appointed a financial manager to the bankrupt city of Flint, effectively taking power away from the democratically elected mayor. The drinking water switch, which Flint made to save money so it could stop paying Detroit for Lake Huron water, was done by the directive of that emergency manager, Darnell Earley.

As a result, a number of GoFundMe campaigns have sprung up to support local organizations who—until this week—have largely shouldered the burden of distributing drinking water among Flint’s residents. Some fundraisers have been very successful: one, as seen below, has raised nearly $14,000.

It’s a great start, but not nearly enough to help Flint out of its current mess. The city could now have to replace part or all of its water system, which could cost $1.5 billion, according to the New York Times. But, the true long-term costs of providing support and care for those affected by lead-exposure remain to be seen.