No Detectable Lead Poisoning in Flint After All

The Flint Water Plant tower in Flint, Mich., February 7, 2016. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
The city’s kids made photogenic victims, but thankfully the scare was overblown.

The numbers are in on the lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water in 2014–15, and it’s time for a sigh of relief. Medically speaking, the lead in the water turned out to be a non-event.

The increase in lead content in children’s blood after the water debacle was small. Tiny, in fact. How tiny? It was basically statistical noise: 0.11 micrograms per deciliter, which is within the range of normal fluctuation. Two experts explain in the New York Times:

A similar increase of 0.12 micrograms per deciliter occurred randomly in 2010-11. It is not possible, statistically speaking, to distinguish the increase that occurred at the height of the contamination crisis from other random variations over the previous decade.

Lead is dangerous and it’s proper to be vigilant about it. In terms of municipal management, or politics, the lead saga in Flint shouldn’t be overlooked. Any negligence should be adequately punished. If you behave in a grossly careless way and somehow no one gets hurt, you were still grossly careless.

Yet in terms of lead in the water in the Flint, the inescapable takeaway from the Times op-ed by professors Hernán Gómez, the lead author of the study “Blood Lead Levels of Children in Flint, Michigan: 2006–2016,” and Kim Dietrich, the principal investigator of the Cincinnati Lead Study, is that the children of Flint dodged a bullet when the city water supply was switched from the Detroit River to the Flint River in 2014. (In 2014–15 there was an outbreak of the bacteria-based Legionnaires’ disease in Flint that caused the deaths of 12 people, but ten of the 12 were linked to a single hospital called McLaren Flint.)

When it comes to lead, like any other substance, the question of dose is all-important. There is no “safe” level of lead, but we do not live in a lead-free environment, and trace amounts of lead are present in most people’s blood. The children of Flint do have lead in their blood — but let’s look at the numbers.

The level at which the Centers for Disease Control recommends medical treatment is 45 micrograms per deciliter. How many children in Flint tested at this level? Zero.

The authors of the Times piece note that 5 micrograms per deciliter is considered a “reference level.” This isn’t the point at which someone’s health is in jeopardy, but merely a heads-up that it’s time to start exploring the environment to discover why the lead levels are elevated. Before the changeover in the water supply, 2.2 percent of Flint children tested above the reference level. After the changeover, that number rose, but only to 3.7 percent. Just 20 years ago, in the late 1990s, when no celebrities were talking about the water in Flint, nearly 45 percent of the children there had lead levels above that point. In 2016, blood-lead levels for tested Flint children hit an all-time low, of 1.15 micrograms per deciliter.

Now let’s dial back the clock to the late 1970s, and previous decades, when cars used leaded gasoline and lead was everywhere. Essentially all children in the Seventies were worse off than Flint children at the height of the crisis. In the late 1970s, 88 percent of U.S. children tested had double today’s reference level of lead in their blood — 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter. In 2015, the worst year of the water problem in Flint, the average child tested had 1.3 micrograms of lead per deciliter. That’s down almost half from the levels recorded as recently as 2006, when that figure was 2.33 micrograms of lead per deciliter in the city.

The major error in Flint was not the choice of a different water source: The lead came primarily from the pipes, not the Flint River. Even lead pipes aren’t necessarily a problem; some ten million Americans receive their drinking water from them. The problem in Flint was that the new water source was not properly treated with orthophosphate, which limits corrosion.

Having both switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015 and added orthophosphate, Flint is back to normal. Its water is fine. There are at least 3,810 areas in the country where blood-lead levels stand at twice the level of Flint’s, or higher. Yet most of those communities aren’t in any danger, either: The story here is the amazing and continuing decline in lead in our country over the last few decades. It’s wonderful news for Flint, and wonderful news for America.

The story here is the amazing and continuing decline in lead in our country over the last few decades. It’s wonderful news for Flint, and wonderful news for America.

Poorly informed celebrities, we learn from the Times piece, have been visiting Flint and asking to see the lead-poisoned ward at the children’s hospital. There isn’t one. Flint’s children haven’t been “poisoned.” They were exposed to elevated levels of lead, but none of them presented with high enough lead levels to require medical treatment.

Yet, among others, Flint native Michael Moore has been making absurd claims about the situation the entire time. In 2016, among many ridiculous statements he has made about the matter, he said, “People’s Homes in Flint Are Now Worth Nothing Because They Can’t Be Sold.” Flint’s average home sale price dipped during the crisis, but not to zero, and in the past year prices have surged 39 percent.

That’s great for Flint. Moore must be glad. Surely he will soon be using his various platforms to celebrate all the happy developments: that Flint real-estate prices have soared to an eight-year high and that its children have much less lead in their blood than their parents and grandparents did. Maybe he’ll apologize to the people of Flint for hysterically overreacting to their water problem and helping to drive down their property values by incessantly portraying their city as a hellhole in order to make a buck telling tall tales to his rich fans in places like New York City.

Or maybe Moore will just go mysteriously quiet about the good news in his hometown. I guess we’ll see.

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