Lessons From A Fight To Fix Flint's Water Supply
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We wanted to hear more about how another city is dealing with this, so we called Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich. She's a pediatrician and a researcher who found elevated lead levels in that city's young children after the city switched its water supply. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, thanks so much for joining us.
MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: How did you find out that the people of Flint were having problems with their water? What set you off on looking at this?
HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, it all started at a dinner party. So I was having a glass of wine with a high school friend who happens to be a water expert. And this is was at the end of August, and she's like, Mona, I'm hearing all these reports about corrosion in the Flint water and the possibility of lead in the water. And when people pediatricians hear about the possibility of lead exposure, we freak out because lead is a neurotoxin. It has a bazillion consequences. So that's kind of what started me on a crusade to look at the blood lead levels of children.
MARTIN: And what did you find?
HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, we compared the blood lead levels of children before the City of Flint switched their water source to the Flint River to after the switch. And we noticed a significant increase in the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels.
MARTIN: Now, I understand that it's not always easy to make the link, as a just heard about from Pennsylvania, between elevated lead levels of children and specific environmental factors. And I have to note that state officials initially dismissed your findings.
HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: Although they later came around. Is it really that hard to link lead levels in the blood to a specific factor like the water?
HANNA-ATTISHA: Yeah, it is difficult. So our research study proved correlation, so we noticed an increase in lead levels. We can't say it's from the water, but nothing else happened in this community. There is no large soil excavation project. Every kid in Flint didn't start becoming a stained glass lead enthusiast. So there was not another source of lead exposure. And nationally, because of great public health efforts, lead levels in children have been going down for the last 30 years because getting the lead out of gasoline, getting the lead out of paint. So when you see an increase - or even if it stays the same - that has to alert you to something going on in the environment.
MARTIN: Yeah, I know that you focused on Flint, but lead levels, as we are finding out, are higher than is optimal in a lot of cities around the U.S., despite these laws that you just told us about - laws that mandate disclosures about potential lead problems in homes. Do you have any sense of why this is still a problem in the United States?
HANNA-ATTISHA: Well, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which is run by the CDC, has lost quite a bit of funding. Through efforts of the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, it went back up to 15 million, but it's still half of what it used to be. So there's not as much money going into the tracking of these children. I think it's shocking that in 2015 - and also, very ironically, in the middle the Great Lakes - that we have lead contamination in our drinking water supply. So I think a lot of regulations need to be strengthened. Other prevention efforts need to be supported that have been cut significantly.
MARTIN: So this past week, Michigan committed to spending more than $9 million to fix this problem. What it was that money going to do, and will this prevent long-term health problems for the kids who've already been exposed?
HANNA-ATTISHA: The damage is done. Lead is a irreversible neurotoxin, so once you are exposed, you're exposed. It crosses the blood-brain barrier. It impacts cognition and behavior and mental health and lifetime, you know, potential, so the damage is done. So the other thing - our research entirely underestimates the risk because lead in water disproportionally affects infants on formula. So imagine that mom - that single mom in the middle of the night. Baby wakes up. Baby wants warm formula, so she opens the warm tap water, mixes it with the powder formula and gives it to the baby. And that is what the baby for the six months of life.
And we don't even screen for lead at that age. That baby's lead level could have peaked at three month or six months, at nine months, so this research completely underestimates the risk because it's an entirely different vulnerable population than what we're used to screening. So we're looking - Corboyle (ph) now says we're looking at markers for brain injury. We're going to repeat the study in a year. We're going to be tracking the milestones and the development of these children. It's all - this - it's a lot of long-term follow-up that needs to happen.
MARTIN: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint. Her research got the Michigan state legislature to take up the cause of getting the lead out of Flint's water supply. Dr. Hanna, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HANNA-ATTISHA: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.