5 Health Facts About the Flint Water Crisis

CMS has granted Michigan a waiver to expand free healthcare to an additional 15,000 children and pregnant women affected by lead poisoned water.

This week, the Obama Administration granted Michigan’s request to expand Medicaid to cover 15,000 children and pregnant women in Flint, Michigan, where the water became contaminated with lead after a switch to a new water supply in April 2014 was mishandled, and state officials failed to properly test the water or monitor public health.

An audit released late Friday faulted Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, saying the staff misread regulations designed to keep lead and copper out of Flint’s water supply. Three employees at DEQ, including the director, have already lost their jobs.

The story of how Flint’s water became poisoned, how government failed at every level, and how the problem might not be so isolated is a cautionary one for public health officials everywhere. Here are 5 health facts to know about the crisis:

1. Who now gets free healthcare. Under this new agreement, children and pregnant women exposed to Flint water in homes, workplaces, schools, or day care centers can receive free healthcare if their household income does not exceed 400% of the poverty level, which is about $97,000 for a family of 4. The federal government will pay 65% of the costs for pregnant women and up to 99% for children, with the state of Michigan covering the rest.

2. Wrap-around services are planned. Hurley Children’s Hospital and Michigan State University created the Flint Lead Innovation Team (FLINT) to expand social services and monitor at-risk children. The team will boost enrollment in nutrition programs like Women, Infants, and Children’s (WIC), expand enrollment in Head Start, and conduct home visits to identify children who may be suffering from learning disabilities or mental health issues.

3. The hero of this story is a pediatrician. While state health officials kept telling Flint residents that their fears about the discolored, smelly water were unfounded, local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, wasn’t buying it. Hanna-Attisha studied lead levels in blood of local children, and when she saw how elevated they were, she immediately went public. Her results have since been published in the American Journal of Public Health.1

4. What makes lead so bad for kids. Lead is sinister because its effects are silent, potent, and irreversible. A neurotoxin, it can cause damage that might not show up for months or even years, and its symptoms might not even be ascribed to lead poisoning. Children exposed to lead can experience developmental delays, learning problems, irritability, stomach pains, hearing loss, and fatigue. They may not eat properly, and they may lose weight.

5. It’s not just Flint. The water crisis has put a spotlight on the lingering lead contamination problem in urban areas. The EPA banned lead in paint in 1978, and it was phased out of gasoline in 1996. But about 24 million housing units built before the ban still have lead in them. Lead can get into the soil where children play, and its presence in aging housing affects at least 4 million young children according to CDC estimates. Isles, Inc., an advocacy group based in Trenton, N.J., estimates that 11 of the state’s cities have higher shares of children with dangerous lead levels than Flint.

Reference

1. Hanna-Attisha, M, LaChance J, Sadler RC, Champney Schnepp A. Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: a spatial analysis of risk and public health response. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(2):283-290.