Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has repeatedly apologized for the toxic water crisis in Flint, heads have rolled and the government has pledged millions to help city kids recover.
Although the state dismissed concerns about Flint’s bad water for more than a year ― water that is still unsafe to drink ― the apologies, resignations and pledges of assistance shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The Flint fallout unfolded dramatically differently than a similar crisis more than 10 years ago. Between 2001 and 2004, toxic water poisoned potentially tens of thousands of Washington, D.C. children. But officials there said nobody got hurt and questioned whether lead poisoning through water was even possible ― and they basically got away with it.
“Not only did we not receive support for our children, but to this day we have received no official acknowledgement of harm,” Yanna Lambrinidou, a D.C. resident and founder of a nonprofit called Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, said in an interview. “We have received no official apology.”
Lead can cause decreased intelligence, stunted growth and behavioral problems in children. But governments can get away with water lead partly because it has no taste or smell, poisoning symptoms vary widely and tracing any one person’s medical problems to lead can be very difficult.
Gretchen Mikeska lives in a hundred-year-old D.C. house that received water from a lead service line during D.C.’s water crisis. In 2003, she said, a test by her pediatrician showed five micrograms of lead per deciliter in her baby daughter’s blood.
Back then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered 10 micrograms to be the level of concern, but in 2012 the CDC lowered the threshold to five. Public health experts generally agree there is no safe level of lead in blood.
Mikeska sends her daughter, now 13, to a special school for kids with language-based learning differences. She doesn’t know whether lead affected her daughter because it’s not possible to know.
“Based on my experience, what will be the most troubling to parents in the long run is always wondering how life would be different if lead contaminated water had not been a part of the early lives of these children,” Mikeska said in an email.
The District’s water started leaching lead from city pipes in 2001 following a treatment change that accidentally increased the water’s corrosiveness ― essentially the same thing that went wrong in Flint. But here’s what was different in the District: after the leaded water belatedly came to the public’s attention in 2004, the CDC said testing showed city kids hadn’t suffered high levels of lead in their blood.
Officials took the CDC’s assurance and ran with it. A city task force said in its final report that “there is scant scientific evidence to suggest a direct connection between lead in drinking water and lead absorption into the body,” which was untrue.
Though some parents and experts remained skeptical, the outcry over D.C.’s lead crisis died down. Then, in 2009, a team led by Virginia Tech civil engineering professor Marc Edwards published research showing that District children had, in fact, suffered elevated blood lead levels when lead spiked in the city’s water. The CDC added asterisks to its report, saying it had been based on incomplete information, and agency director Tom Frieden admitted in 2010 that the report “left room for misinterpretation.”
Michigan officials tried to downplay Flint’s lead concerns last year, but got stopped in their tracks by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Hurley Medical Center. She reported in September that the rate of high blood lead levels had doubled in Flint kids ― going from 2.4 to 4.9 percent ― after the city switched its water source in 2014. The state government soon admitted the problem and switched the water back.
“The deceptive narratives in Flint were not given the opportunity to take root,” Lambrinidou said.
Instead of continuing to downplay concerns, Michigan has acted to distribute bottled water, filters and funds for extra school nurses and case management for children at risk of elevated blood lead levels. This week, Snyder proposed additional spending for the future nutritional and educational needs of the roughly 9,000 Flint kids younger than 6.
Though better nutrition and educational interventions can help reduce the impact of childhood lead poisoning, parents will always be left to wonder how their kids’ lives might have been different.
“The problem with lead is that you’ll never know ― was this from the lead, or was the kids always supposed to have this?” Hanna-Attisha said in an interview. “You can’t prove causation.”
Several D.C. parents told HuffPost they’re grateful the Flint fiasco has brought national attention to the problem water of lead poisoning. Lambrinidou has been working to encourage the Environmental Protection Agency to require cities to get rid of the millions of lead pipes still in use. Continuing to use poisonous pipes remains national policy.
HuffPost interviewed DC Water Director George Hawkins for a January story that explored the similarities between Flint and D.C. Hawkins said DC Water takes lead very seriously ― the city’s water lead levels have met federal standards since 2005 ― but he said it’s not clear to him if anyone suffered as a result of high lead levels in the city’s water from 2001 through 2004, despite peer-reviewed research suggesting tens of thousands of children could have had elevated blood lead levels.
“I think the jury is still out on that question,” Hawkins said.