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In April of 2014 politicians in Flint, Michigan changed the city’s water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, in order to save money. The water from the Flint River was more acidic and had more salt and chlorine in it, and it corroded the aging lead pipes through which it flowed, allowing lead into the water and poisoning the inhabitants of Flint.

Tap water Image/Video Screen Shot

Tap water
Image/Video Screen Shot

The EPA allows 15 ppm (parts per million) of lead in drinking water. Water from homes in Flint tested as high as 13.2 thousand ppm. Lead levels in children’s blood doubled, then doubled again.

Nontombi Naomi Tutu said we “needed the people of Flint to remind the people of this country what happens when political expediency, when financial concerns, overshadow justice and humanity.”

Why do we worry about Lead?

Lead is a soft gray heavy metal that functions in our bodies as a neurotoxin–it poisons nerves. Acute lead poisoning causes headaches, stomach pain, clumsiness, agitation or drowsiness, convulsions and death.

Chronic lead poisoning is more insidious. Lead is most harmful to infants, children and pregnant woman, because it damages developing nerves. Kids who are poorly nourished will be more affected because deficiencies in iron, calcium and zinc increase their body’s absorption of lead. Babies are more at risk because they live closer to floors and surfaces and everything goes into their mouths. Exposed children:

  • can lose cognitive function and develop speech and reading problems.
  • can be unable to focus and organize their thoughts, and exhibit behavior problems.
  • have a higher school dropout rate, problems with aggression, and a higher rate of delinquency.
  • can have damage to their hearing.
  • will have problems growing because lead messes with their ability to use Vitamin D and iron.
  • become anemic, which leaves them less able to transport oxygen around their bodies.
  • can cause damage to their kidneys, giving them lifelong problems with hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Where is lead found?

When I was a kid we wrote with lead pencils and had lead in our gasoline!

Nowadays, lead is used in some industries, found in deteriorating lead paint in old houses, and leached out of old lead water pipes and pipes with lead solder. We also occasionally run into it in old toys, old Christmas decorations, and jewelry, and in toys, ceramics and cans imported from other countries. Cosmetics such as surma and kohl can have lead, as can some home remedies and dietary supplements. A few years ago there were crayons with lead in them. The manufacturer said, “Kids weren’t supposed to eat them!”

Ideally, we prevent lead poisoning. 

  • If you work in an industry that uses lead, take off your shoes when you enter your home.
  • Don’t give your kids old toys and jewelry to chew on.
  • If you have lead pipes in your home, run the water for 30 seconds before you use any of it to drink or cook, because lead will gradually leach from the pipes it is sitting in. Never drink or cook with water run hot from the tap–hot water leaches out more lead.
  • If you live in an old house, clean up peeling paint and household dust with a wet mop.
  • Check for lead paint before any home renovations.
  • If you have well water, test it for lead. Most well filters do remove lead.
  • Give your child a nutritious diet to avoid deficiencies in iron, calcium, and zinc.

Treatment for Lead Poisoning:

Pediatricians generally check children’s lead levels at 12 months and sometimes 2 years, and any time there is concern.

Treatment of lead poisoning varies with how high the level is.

Between 5 and 45 mcg/dl, treatment involves finding and eliminating the source and optimizing the child’s nutrition. Levels as low as 5 mcg/dl have been shown to have lasting effects on children, but chelation therapy at these levels has not been proven to have any effect on kids’ cognitive ability or behavior.

Kids with levels over 45 mcg/dl need to be treated with chelating agents, which can be quite dangerous. Chelators bind the metal in the blood and improve its excretion into urine and stool. Unfortunately chelators also bind minerals that your child’s body needs for normal growth and development. Also, kids can be allergic to the chelators, and the medicine can damage their liver or kidneys.

Far better to prevent the exposure.

I do not have words for how horribly the people of Flint were betrayed by their elected officials.

Some resources if you have concerns:

  • EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline  800-426-4791
  • Poison Control 800-222-1222
  • Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit Network (PEHSU) 888-347-2632

Kathleen Lovlie, MD, FAAP is a Pediatrician, Award Winning Author and Parenting Blogger

3 Comments

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