Water Contamination in Flint, MI, and Lead Poisoning Resources

Lead poisoning has been in the headlines lately, given the environmental health crisis going on in Flint, MI. The city’s water supply is contaminated with lead, and reportedly has been since 2014 when the drinking water source was temporarily switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The switch was a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready for use. However, the water from Flint River was found to be highly corrosive, and it damaged the lead service lines connected to many of Flint’s homes; though the water source was reverted back to Lake Huron in October, the damage done to the pipes means that lead has been leeching into the city’s drinking water ever since. The situation was revealed publicly earlier this month, and state and federal States of Emergency have since been declared in Flint. Residents are now drinking bottled and filtered water, but anyone who drank city tap water during that time period was exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

As the situation in Flint continues to develop, it offers local health departments a reminder of why they should educate their communities on the importance of checking for lead in their homes, and the danger that lead can pose.

Lead poisoning can affect anyone but is most commonly seen in children. Childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease among young children, yet approximately half a million U.S. children have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per decileter, the reference level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends public health action be initiated. When lead is absorbed into the body it can cause a range of health problems, including damage to the brain, kidneys, nerves, and blood. Lead can also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures, and in extreme cases, death. Symptoms of lead poisoning include include headaches, stomachaches. nausea, tiredness, and irritability—however, children may show no symptoms of poisoning.

Lead poisoning is most commonly linked to deteriorated lead paint, from both inside and outside the home, that mixes with dust and soil and is spread throughout the home. Children may then become poisoned by putting their lead-contaminated hands in their mouths, eating paint chips, and playing in lead-contaminated soil. Low-income and African American children are at an even higher risk of experiencing lead poisoning. In some cases, such as the one in Flint, lead can come from a water supply that passes through lead pipes.

Eliminating elevated blood lead levels in children is a Healthy People 2020 goal. Federal departments including the CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have a number of tools and resources available to support local health departments in their lead poisoning prevention and community education programs.

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About Katie Regan

Katie Regan serves as the Communications Specialist for Environmental Health, Pandemic Preparedness, and Catastrophic Response at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments' best practices through NACCHO's various storytelling and communications channels. Twitter: @katiejregan

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