The Poorest Flint Children Have Been Hit Hardest By Lead Poisoning

CREDIT: Bryce Covert

The most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Flint have been the hardest hit by the lead poisoning crisis, new research finds. It also points directly to the city’s decision to switch water sources to the Flint River as causing higher lead levels in residents’ bloodstreams.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and her team of researchers compared blood levels of children under five in tests taken before the water source changed in 2013 to tests taken in 2015. As the paper with their findings notes, the “analysis identified disadvantaged neighborhoods as having the greatest elevated blood lead level increases.”

In Ward 5, the percentage with an elevated blood level (5 micrograms of lead per deciliter or more) was already high before the current crisis, at 4.9 percent. Yet after the children started drinking Flint River water, the rate more than tripled, to 15.7 percent. Ward 6 saw the same thing: before the crisis, 2.2 percent of children had elevated lead levels in their blood, which more than tripled to 9.3 percent afterward. Although Ward 2 levels were lower overall, the neighborhood saw a sizable increase: from no children with elevated lead levels to 1.4 percent afterward.

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Not all parts of the city were hit evenly. Four wards actually saw the incidence of elevated lead levels fall, while two stayed about the same. “[M]ore stable neighborhoods in the far north and south of the city may have experienced improved predicted BLLs [blood lead levels] because of prevention efforts taken by the more-often middle-class residents in response to the water source change,” the authors note.

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The prevalence of high blood levels in in Wards 5, 6, and 7 were also found to correspond with high levels of lead in water samples. That’s something that the researchers found to hold true across the city: before the source of water changed, 2.4 percent of Flint children had high lead blood levels, while afterward 4.9 percent did. Yet in comparison, outside of the area affected by the water, there was no statistically significant change in children’s lead levels. Things were even worse in areas where high lead levels were found in the water: the incidence of lead in children’s blood rose from 4 percent to 10.6 percent in those places.

“Because there was no known alternative source for increased lead exposure during this time period,” the researchers write, “the geospatial WLL [water lead level] results, the innate corrosive properties of Flint River water, and, most importantly, the lack of corrosion control, our findings strongly implicate the water source change as the probable cause for the dramatic increase in EBLL [elevated blood lead level percentage.”

The research is incredibly troubling for a population that was already struggling with poverty, unemployment, and low education levels. Children can absorb far more lead from water than adults, and the neurotoxin has big impacts on their development, including learning, behavior, and life achievement. “Increased lead-poisoning rates have profound implications for the life course potential of an entire cohort of Flint children already rattled with toxic stress contributors (e.g., poverty, violence, unemployment, food insecurity),” the paper notes. Officials are already warning, for instance, that far more children will come into contact with the criminal justice system.

The city’s residents, more than 40 percent of whom live in poverty, have been dealing with other economic issues for decades, such as a rapid erosion of jobs and neglect and disinvestment. At the same time they were being poisoned by their drinking water, they were paying the highest bills in the country for it.