The CDC has released a report confirming that children in Flint, Michigan, were significantly more likely to have higher levels of lead in their blood during the recent crisis when the Flint River was used for drinking water. The CDC report provides insight into the scope of the problem that existed. It also reminds us that lead remains a problem in Flint and nationwide.
Understanding the size and scope of the problem helps health care providers, educators, parents and others in the community better shape the future for all of Flint’s children who were exposed to lead from contamination in the water supply.
Blood lead levels are challenging to understand and it is difficult to predict the effect of a given lead level in an individual child. We know that lead in the environment, even at low levels, can impact children’s development. That’s one of the reasons that the water crisis has been of such public health concern. On an individual level, higher blood levels should prompt doctors to talk with parents about possible lead sources in the child’s environment so that parents and property owners can eliminate the sources as fast as possible.
The CDC analyzed thousands of test results from Flint children under age 6 who were tested for lead between October 2013 and March 2016. The authors broke out the results into the kids who were tested before the water crisis, during the height of the crisis, and after the water source was switched back to Detroit’s system and residents were advised to drink filtered or bottled water.
While the study found that the percent of kids tested with elevated blood levels rose significantly, from 3% to 5%, CDC’s analysis, and current data reported by the State of Michigan, does not indicate that any children in Flint had blood lead levels so high that chelation would have been needed. Experts only recommend chelation therapy for a child with a test result of greater than or equal to 45 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood. Although the CDC’s analysis was thorough, there are still things we may never know about lead exposure among Flint’s children.
The report cannot tell us the extent to which children might be affected by exposure to lead. The effect of lead exposure varies depending on the length and level of exposure, physical attributes of the child, and whether there are other exposures such as paint, dust or soil happening at the same time. Every child’s situation is unique and each responds differently to an exposure. Long-lasting effects also depend on whether the child has access to good nutrition, early education, and activities that help their brains develop and counteract the effects of lead.
And even with the unknowns, kids in Flint who had elevated blood lead levels can still thrive and succeed. What the report tells us is that some children may need extra help to reach this goal. The Flint community, together with public and private partners, has really come together to help children and families overcome the potential health effects of this crisis; that partnership must maintain its momentum over the long term.
As one of those partners, the Obama Administration is doing everything possible to help the city of Flint recover from this crisis. HHS has expanded Medicaid to ensure that every child who lived in Flint while the water was unsafe has access to health coverage, allowing them to be seen by a doctor regularly and get connected with the right health care services. This comprehensive coverage includes blood lead level monitoring, behavioral health services, transportation, and programs to ensure that each child can be connected to whatever medical, social, educational, and other services they need. Behavioral health services have also been expanded in Flint and emergency funding has helped the community health centers hire new staff and provide additional services.
In addition, parents and others can help children by making sure they have a diet high in iron, calcium, and vitamin C and that is not high in fat. This diet reduces the rate of absorption of lead into a child’s body. USDA is also working with state and local programs and local schools to boost access to nutritious foods in Flint. Activities that help to stimulate the brain and learning are important, too, including early education like preschool or Head Start, reading, and singing to your children. Getting a child involved in summer reading and math programs can help.
Flint reminds us that lead is a problem across the country. No matter where you live, if you think your child has been exposed to lead, please talk to your child’s doctor about getting tested for lead. This is such an important issue that CDC recommends all children ages 1 to 5 years old be tested. If testing shows elevated lead levels, don’t ignore it. Your healthcare provider can recommend the best approach for your child to help you shape the brightest future for your family.