Flint Lead Poisoning Risk from Water Leads To Emergency Declaration By White House

Amid concerns about the risk of lead poisoning from a contaminated water supply, President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan. 

The White House announced the emergency declaration on January 16, at the behest of Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder.

According to a statement issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Sunday, federal emergency aid has been made available to assist in the response to the water crisis.

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Flint, Michigan, switched from the Detroit Water System to water from the Flint River in April 2014. Residents immediately began complaining about cloudy and foul-smelling water, and many reported developing skin lesions and rashes after exposure to the water. However, the biggest health effect may have been on the city’s children, whose lead poisoning rate doubled since the switch.

The water source change was meant to save money, and was orchestrated by an unelected emergency manager appointed to Flint by Governor Snyder to put the city’s financial affairs in order. The ultimate goal was to switch to a new connection to Lake Huron, but critics say that the plan failed to account for the fact that Detroit water is chemically treated to prevent lead from leaching out of the aging infrastructure. Flint’s water was not.

Despite almost immediate community outcry and concerns, it took the state and Governor Snyder a year and a half to admit there was a problem and switch the water back while the Lake Huron connection is being built. It is unclear how many of the city’s children have suffered permanent developmental damage due to lead poisoning during that time.

In addition, Michigan health officials are now studying a potential link between the water crisis and whether water contamination was behind a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak which has sickened 87 people and killed at least 10 from June 2014 to October 2015.

The respiratory illness was across Genessee County, including Flint. However, investigators note that only 41% of those sickened were on the Flint water system. But that does not mean they were not exposed to water from that system at other times.

The emergency declaration allows FEMA to provide equipment and resources to the community at its discretion, which the agency says will include providing water, water filters, water filter cartridges, water test kits and similar items for up to 90 days. The order charges FEMA with saving lives and protecting property and public health and safety.

Governor Snyder, the City of Flint, and members of the Flint water authority face a class action lawsuit from Flint residents, who say they suffered skin lesions, hair loss, vision loss, and other ailments as a result. In addition, a federal investigation has been launched into how the crisis occurred, and some say Governor Snyder could be a focus of that probe.

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.

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