IMG_1790I keep seeing snippets of news reports about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. I haven’t stopped long enough to listen to what really happened, until now. The drinking water is contaminated with lead, children have been exposed, and the Governor, Rick Snyder, is being targeted as a potential conspirator.

Lead is a naturally occurring element in the environment. In higher concentrations, it can be debilitating and even deadly, especially to the youngest of us. Prior to 1978, paint contained lead. Children (especially poor kids in the city) who live in older homes are at increased risk of lead poisoning through ingesting paint chips, dust, or soil with paint residue.

Gasoline once contained lead, specifically tetraethyl lead, because it increased its octane rating (which means higher power). It was phased out of the gas supply in the US by 1986. Unfortunately, plenty of people were exposed to elevated concentrations of lead by breathing it from the air (especially poor people in the city).

Older homes not only had lead-laden paint, but also lead-laden pipes that carry water. Lead pipes are another source of lead poisoning. Over time, the pipes age, corrode and lead leaches into the water.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin. Children exposed to lead in the earliest years risk decreased IQ, shortened attention span, learning disabilities, growth retardation, and in severe cases, encephalopathy. Children are especially at increased risk since they tend to become exposed by putting high lead content items in their mouths when their developing neurological system is most vulnerable. Medicaid requires that all children ages 1 and 2 be tested for lead poisoning by a simple blood test in their doctor’s office regardless of their exposure or symptoms.

Which brings me back to Flint, Michigan. In April of 2014, the city of Flint was cash-strapped and looking for ways to cut the budget. A state-appointed emergency manager recommended cutting costs by taking water from the nearby Flint River and having it treated at the local city water treatment plant instead of buying the water from Detroit (who got it from Lake Huron and treated it). It was going to be a quick fix while waiting for their own water line to be built to Lake Huron.

This in and of itself is not really the problem. The problem came when the city water treatment plant failed to use the necessary chemicals to treat the corrosive Flint River water. The water contains chemicals such as chlorides (likely coming from the salt used on roads to deter ice formation), which are highly corrosive to pipes.

Like lead pipes. The pipes are the source of the lead. From April 2014 until October 2015, lead leached into the water that flowed into the Flint, Michigan homes from the outdated lead pipes. In October, the city switched back to its original water source when it was made clear by local doctors that the youngest children of Flint, Michigan were showing alarming increases in lead levels. A state of emergency was not declared until January 2016.

I wonder how much money was actually saved by the state when they switched their source of water and then failed to treat it. After declaring a state of emergency, $28 million was freed up to repair and replace the dated lead pipes, provide medical testing and alternative water sources for those affected. Another $5 million was promised from the federal government to provide clean water and filters. It’s not going to be enough. It never is.

I also wonder is lead the worst thing in that water?  Untreated chloride forms trihalomethanes, which are known carcinogens and teratogens (causing birth defects).

Purposely poisoning children can elicit disgust in even the most hardened soul. It’s not just children, but an entire city of people who were unknowingly poisoned. It’s a city made up greater than 50% blacks and a quarter of its population is below the poverty line. It’s a city that is underserved, undervalued, and overlooked. Not anymore. Thanks to the doctors that blew the whistle.



  1. www.familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/kids/home-safety/lead-poisoning-in-children.html
  2. www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/01/19/michigan-flint-water-contamination/78996052/
  3. www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/
  4. www.cnn.com/2016/01/18/us/flint-michigan-water-crisis-five-things/index.html
  5. content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1991915_1991909_1991817,00.html
  6. www.nrdc.org/health/effects/flead.asp
  7. wikipedia.org/wiki/Flint_River_(Michigan)
  8. wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning
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2 Responses to Unleaded

  1. Curtis Martin says:

    Thanks–I was uneducated on this situation, and I appreciate your perspective!

    Any links between high lead exposure & autism?


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