Flint, Michigan has drawn national attention due to apparent government negligence that resulted in widespread lead exposure. Were it not for the actions of scientists working independently of the state, the lead crisis may have never come to light. Immediately after authorities switched the city’s water supply to the Flint River, residents started complaining of discolored, foul tasting water that was causing skin irritation and hair loss. Inexplicably, for a year and a half authorities ignored complaints and mounting evidence of lead contamination. There is evidence that state officials may have known about the contamination for months before taking action, including Governor Rick Snyder and the agencies tasked with ensuring safe public drinking water, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Where government authorities failed to protect the public health, independent scientists stepped in and conducted the analyses that would reveal the magnitude of Flint’s lead problem.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal that, unfortunately, is found in old construction materials such as paints and pipes dating back to the time before we understood risks of lead exposure. Lead poisoning was known to the ancient Romans, but modern healthcare providers did not fully understand the dangers of lead exposure until the 1990s, when researchers linked neurological and behavioral issues with low levels of lead exposure. Scientists and healthcare providers now say that there is no safe level of lead exposure and researchers have recently linked lead with poor academic performance and increased criminality. In most cases there is no treatment for lead poisoning and people exposed to lead may suffer lifelong debilitations. Children and infants, whose neurological systems are still developing, are most at risk. After lead exposure is detected, there is little to do but provide services to help lead victims make the best of their condition and overcome barriers. The best treatment, scientists and healthcare providers agree, is to prevent exposure in the first place.
Looking to cut expenditures, state and local officials decided to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit’s water system to the polluted Flint River in April 2014. In the ensuing months officials ignored complaints from Flint residents and dismissed concerns that the water was unsafe to drink. State agencies continued to report that the water was safe and that there was no spike in lead exposure. However, the state’s methods were called into question. Miguel Del Toral, a regulations manager with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reported that EPA testing had found high lead levels and suggested that corrosion control was inadequate, which turned out to be the case. Other officials reported that MDEQ’s water testing method would not accurately detect lead levels. Despite the red flags, however, the unsafe water continued to flow.
At a news conference in September 2015, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician based in Flint, announced an alarming spike in blood lead levels in children. Comparing blood lead levels before and after the April 2014 switch, Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her colleagues found that the number of children above the limit set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had doubled. In some high-risk neighborhoods as much as 10% residents had high blood lead levels. Within hours officials from DHHS underplayed the results of Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study, saying that their DHHS testing did not show the spike in blood lead levels. However, Dr. Hanna-Attisha and her colleagues stood by their results, reporting their findings in November 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health. The state has since backtracked.
Dr. Marc Edwards first learned about Flint’s water problem through a phone call. Dr. Edwards had been on the front lines of a lead crisis before. In 2004, he had found high levels of lead in Washington, D.C., and he spent the next six years challenging the CDC’s claims that there was no lead problem. He was vindicated in 2010, when it came to light that the CDC had lied in their report on the matter. Then he received a phone call in April 2015 from Leeanne Walters, a Flint resident frustrated that Michigan officials were ignoring what to her was clearly a problem. Her tap water was discolored and her children were getting sick. Dr. Edwards asked Walters to send a water sample to his lab. When he analyzed the sample he found, as he told the Washington Post, the highest lead levels he had ever seen.
Concerned about the indications of another lead crisis, Dr. Edwards and his research team from Virginia Tech conducted their own study. The researchers sent 300 water sampling kits to homes in Flint with instructions on how to properly collect and package the samples. After analyzing the 252 samples that were sent back his Virginia Tech lab, Dr. Edwards and his team reported in September 2015 that Flint had a very serious lead problem. The researchers questioned why Flint had not previously failed to meet the EPA’s Lead and Copper rule and called on authorities to verify their own methods and conclusions.
Flint switched back to Detroit’s water system in October 2015, a month after the results from both Dr. Edwards’s and Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s studies were released. Much about the decision making process behind the switch remains unclear, though Governor Snyder’s office recently released emails relating to the Flint lead crisis. We may soon have a clearer picture of what went on behind closed doors.
What is clear is that independent science played a crucial role in bringing the lead crisis to light. Scientists could do something that traditional activists could not do on their own: provide hard evidence. Acting as a check on negligent state and local authorities, Dr. Hanna-Attisha, Dr. Edwards, and their colleagues conducted rigorous studies and found undeniable evidence of lead contamination. Importantly, the researchers went beyond simply sharing their results. They took on the role of scientist-advocates, arguing, evidence in hand, that a problem existed and authorities needed to pay attention. In collaboration with other advocates and community activists, scientists were part of making change happen.
Flint is not the only American city with a lead problem. Lead exposure is a serious issue in cities with aging infrastructures and in older homes with lead paint. Advocacy groups note that lead exposure rates are highest among underserved and minority populations, a textbook case of environmental injustice. Lead contamination needs and deserves sustained attention, even after the Flint headlines begin to fade from the front page.
Exposure to heavy metals is a global problem. I work with communities in the Peruvian Amazon where artisanal gold mining releases an estimated 50 tons of mercury into the environment each year. The mercury makes its way into rivers and fish, which people eat in abundance. Studies indicate that the majority of the population has mercury levels that exceed EPA limits. As with lead, mercury can cause permanent neurological damage and children are most at risk. Public outrage over the apparent government negligence that caused Flint’s lead crisis is warranted. If we are outraged about lead exposure in Michigan, we should also pay attention to other parts of the world where heavy metals exposure is a daily occurrence. The United Nations estimates that 15 million people work in artisanal gold mining around the world and that as many as 60 million people are at risk of associated mercury exposure. The magnitude is staggering.
Without the work of researchers and community activists, officials in Michigan may have continued denying the realities of Flint’s lead crisis. Once their hand was forced by independent research, Governor Snyder and other Michigan officials did take action, though it may be too little too late. In late January 2016 Governor Snyder appointed Dr. Hanna-Attisha and Dr. Edwards to a 17-person panel to deal with Flint’s lead crisis.
Many environmental health crises around the world go unrecognized simply due to insufficient scientific evidence or a misinterpretation, possibly deliberate, of the science. Independent science plays an important role in preventing, recognizing, and mitigating environmental health threats. When authorities fail to take action, scientists need to be ready to step in, share their results, and advocate.