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Lead Poisoning Risk from Drinking Water Results in State of Emergency in Flint, MI

The mayor of Flint, Michigan has declared a state of emergency due to the high levels of lead being detected in the city’s drinking water, which has led to a spike in elevated lead levels and may cause the city’s children to face an increased risk of lead poisoning

The state of emergency was initiated by Mayor Karen W. Weaver on December 14, calling the problem a “manmade disaster” in hopes of state and federal emergency assistance.

The cry for help came after a recent study found that four percent of children in the city younger than the age of five had levels of lead in their blood in excess of federal safety standards.

The rate of children with potential lead poisoning spiked after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a non-elected emergency manager to manage Flint, which has been in financial decline for decades as factories shut down in what was once a major automotive manufacturing center.

The emergency manager, to save money, forced the city to switch from the Detroit water system to the local Flint River, despite protests by elected city officials. A law put in place by Governor Snyder allows the appointment of such managers to cash-strapped municipalities, overriding the votes of local residents and their elected officials.

The law has been heavily criticized, since it has been used primarily to take over African American majority cities, such as Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor. Detroit was forced into bankruptcy proceedings, and in one instance a beach gifted to the people of Benton Harbor, a city with a median income of $17,000, was seized and turned into an expensive private golf course for the rich.

Critics say that the switch to the Flint River resulted in more corrosive water pouring into residents’ old lead pipes, which they were then exposed to in drinking and bathing water. Detroit’s water system has chemicals added to prevent such corrosion.

Residents immediately began complaining of foul and smelly water and numerous tests confirmed that not only were lead levels spiking in homes, but also found that the number of children in the city with elevated levels of lead in their blood have doubled since the switch.

A number of residents have filed a class action lawsuit against the governor and the state, saying that they knew the Flint River’s water was unfit for use, but switched anyway to save the state money.

In October, Governor Snyder switched the city back to the Detroit water system and has pledged $10 million to build a new pipeline to Lake Huron. However, many critics point out that the developmental damage to children exposed to high levels of lead in Flint is now likely permanent, which may lead to mental and physical health consequences in years to come.

Mayor Weaver is calling for aid to deal with the impacts on the city’s children.

The CDC estimates that 535,000 children ages 1-5, or about 2.6% of such children in the U.S., have levels of lead in their blood that place them at risk for adverse health effects. To come up with that number, the CDC analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the years 1999 to 2002, and 2007 through 2010.

The majority of those children are poor and live in older urban areas, mainly in the inner city. Most are minorities, meaning such exposures add to numerous problems already plaguing inner city black and Latino youths, such as poverty, high crime and poor schools.

In May 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper (PDF) which found that lead exposure in childhood lead to increases in aggression, decreased impulse control and likely lead to higher violent crime rates when that child became an adult.

The study also found that as lead paint was removed from urban areas, the crime rates declined. While policing, education and poverty reduction almost certainly played a factor in those decreases, the paper suggests that decreasing rates of lead paint exposure may also play an important role.

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