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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Consequences of Flint’s Water Crisis, Part 1

Published February 17, 2016 4:28 PM by Lindsey Nolen

No one expects having to fear consumption of their local water supply. Yet residents of Flint, Mich., are currently experiencing just that due to the city’s self-induced water crisis. After dangerous amounts of lead were found in Flint’s drinking water, a state of emergency for the area was declared.

This water crisis stems from the city government’s decision to replace the formerly safe drinking water with a cheaper alternative, despite knowledge of its high toxicity. When residents began to complain to the city council that the water smelled, tasted foul and appeared cloudy, multiple tests confirmed amounts of total coliform and fecal coliform bacteria in the water. In response, three boil water advisories were issued during a 22-day span in the summer of 2015.

Health Risks
Although lead is considered toxic to everyone, the small, growing bodies of unborn babies and young children make them especially susceptible to both absorbing and retaining the chemical element. A study1 released by Flint’s Hurley Medical Center in September of 2015 confirmed that the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city’s switch from using the Detroit water system to the Flint River as its water source in 2014.

The knowledge of this contamination is essential and should be used to reevaluate the community’s well-being because, according to the World Health Organization,2 “lead affects children’s brain development, resulting in reduced intelligence quotient, behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”

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Additionally, prolonged exposure to lead can cause a person to experience abdominal pain, constipation, depression, distraction, memory loss, irritability and nausea. If exposed to high levels over a short period of time, a person may also feel increasingly tired and weak or experience headaches, a loss of appetite or pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet.3 Over a longer period of time, lead may also cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and an increased risk of cancer.

 

“Lead is an unbelievably potent neurotoxin; it quite literally takes only a microscopic amount to poison a child. Very high levels of lead exposure—if not quickly recognized and treated— cause convulsions, organ failures, comas and deaths. Generally, those outcomes are rarer than they used to be, as medical interventions such as chemical chelation regimes have been developed which can be effective in these cases,” explained  Tamara Rubin, executive director of the Lead Safe America Foundation. “It could be argued, though, that in one sense, the ‘worst case scenario’ is at the other end of the spectrum: the low-level chronic exposures that so commonly go unnoticed and unreported due to few or no immediately observed symptoms.”

 

References:

1. Flint Water Study. Pediatric Lead Exposure Presentation from Hurley Medical Center doctors concerning Flint MI. http://goo.gl/Lk6CEm

2. World Health Organization. Lead Poisoning and Health. Available at: http://goo.gl/R7H989 

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Problems Caused by Lead. http://goo.gl/aZKuax 

4. Michigan Live. Flint doctor will head team to fight health problems from Flint water crisis. http://goo.gl/KYUs5N 

2 comments

It was, in fact, the state-appointed emergency manager who made the decision to switch the water supply. The chemical that should have been added to the water to prevent lead leaching from pipes was not added "due to cost." Human life is apparently cheap...

Christine Gasco, Clinical pathology - Lead medical technologist, VA Healthcare February 25, 2016 5:39 PM
St. Petersburg FL

Why call this a 'self induced' water crisis by the city? The STATE of Michigan, under Gov. Snyder's direction,decided to take over management of cities like Flint, years ago. The mayor and city council did not choose  to switch there water supply.....the governor's emergency manager did. The state knew Flint River water wasn't drinkable to start with. The state chose to add a chemical to the water which CAUSED the pipes to corrode, and subsequently, leach lead. Before Flint, GM refused to even clean car parts with Flint River water.

Patricia White, MT(ASCP) February 25, 2016 5:33 PM
Riverside RI

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