As federal, state and community leaders grapple with the immediate challenge of providing Flint, Michigan with safe drinking water, the pediatrician who unearthed evidence of lead in the city’s water supply is now focused on long-term efforts to reduce the health impact on an estimated 9,000 Flint children.
“We cannot sit back and wait 20 years to see the consequences of lead poisoning in our schools and in our criminal justice system,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of pediatric residency at Hurley Children’s Hospital, who in September led a group of doctors urging Flint to stop drawing tap water from the Flint River after finding elevated lead levels in the blood of young children.
Hanna-Attisha, 39, who also is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University, is leading a committee of experts to develop a strategy that would mitigate the impact of lead exposure on thousands of children under age 6.
The state’s chief medical executive said this week that all children who consumed the city’s water since April 2014 are considered to have been exposed to lead, a neurotoxin that affects the development of the brain and nervous system. Lead is particularly damaging to children under 6 because the brain shows rapid growth in the early years of a child’s life.
Exposure may have been heightened during three periods when city officials instructed residents to boil their tap water before consuming it, because raising the temperature concentrates the level of lead.
Experts say lead exposure is connected to lower IQ, behavioral problems, learning disabilities and mental retardation. Heavy doses of lead can trigger convulsions, coma and death. There is no “safe” lead level for children, and experts consider the damage “irreversible.”
But there are ways to mitigate damage, Hanna-Attisha said.
“Not every kid is going to have every problem, and we can do things now that can lessen the impact,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity to build a model public health program.”
She is leading a group of experts including pediatricians, epidemiologists, developmental specialists, toxicologists, educators, geographers and county and state health officials. The committee, which is funded by the university and the hospital, is focused on three areas: education, nutrition and health.
It is recommending an increase in educational programs in Flint aimed at children between birth and age 5. In addition, Flint schools need to hire school nurses, Hanna-Attisha said. Michigan school districts have an average of one school nurse for every 750 students; in Flint, there is currently one school nurse for the 7,000 students in the school district, Hanna-Attisha said.
The committee wants Flint to increase special education services in the public schools and boost afterschool programming and behavioral therapy.
And it is promoting foods that limit the absportion of lead, such as foods rich in iron, calcium and Vitamin C. But the challenge is steep: the city of Flint has no grocery store.
“We have to do this,” Hanna-Attisha said. “We are morally, ethically, professionally, obligated. We have to. These kids did nothing wrong and we owe it to them to try to intervene, to build this program.”
The committee does not yet have a cost estimate for the mitigation strategy, or funding at this point, she said. But it will be making recommendations to state and federal officials in an effort to access public disaster funds, and has set up a foundation, flintkids.com, that is accepting private donations.
In April 2014, Flint switched its water source from Detroit to the Flint River as a short-term measure while a new system to connect to Lake Huron was constructed. Flint residents immediately began complaining about the look and taste of the new water supply, as well as skin reactions and other concerns.
[Michigan authorities debated whether the lead problem was real]
In September, Hanna-Attisha and an independent research team from Virginia Tech, released their findings that lead contamination had nearly doubled and even tripled in children younger than 5 after the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River.
State regulators initially dismissed her, saying her data were “sliced and diced.” But they soon reversed course and acknowledged Hanna-Attisha was correct about a scandal that has rocked Michigan and reverberated all the way to the White House.
“As a professional, as a researcher, you make sure your numbers are right,” Hanna-Attisha said. “You check, you triple check. To be doubted by the state and attacked, it’s hard not to second guess yourself. But this is my job as a pediatrician because kids don’t have a voice, they can’t vote. Especially in an underserved community, you need to be their advocate.”