New federal data provide the most extensive look so far at the scope of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which became a flashpoint this past winter for the dangers of lead and government inaction in a poor community.
Flint children consuming city water were nearly 50 percent more likely to test for a blood lead level considered high after Flint switched in 2014 to a water source that corroded the city’s underground pipes, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
The report, released Friday, draws from nearly 10,000 blood tests conducted over the course of nearly three years on children under 6 years old, who can experience lasting health consequences and developmental delays as a result of exposure to even relatively low levels of lead.
The data suggest the impact on Flint children may not have been as devastating as it could have been. Nearly 86 percent of the 162 Flint children found to have high blood lead levels during the crisis tested for fewer than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the lowest tier considered to be elevated.
“It provides some reassurances that these exposures were not as high as people were concerned they could be,” Patrick Breysse, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, told STAT. “These children are not doomed, they’re not poisoned — that’s a medical term that doesn’t represent what we’re seeing here.”
Although there is no level of lead known to be safe for children, five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood is typically the threshold at which children are given dietary changes and social and educational services. No Flint children hit the extremely high mark of 45 micrograms per deciliter during the crisis, at which point people are treated with more extreme measures like chelation therapy.
Elevated blood lead levels declined after the city issued a water advisory and switched to a different water source — data collected in a five-month period concluding this March showed just 48 cases — but the CDC report emphasized that could be attributable to behavioral changes like drinking bottled water rather than safer city water.
Data previously released by the state of Michigan and outside researchers had shown similar results, but the new CDC report provides the biggest, most granular picture over the longest period of time.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that city water that is filtered is now safe for all residents to drink, including babies, children, and women who are pregnant or nursing.