The lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has people across the nation wondering about their own possible exposure to the toxic metal.
“When pediatricians hear anything about lead, we stand up straight, and we freak out,” says Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, and one of the doctors who helped uncover that city’s crisis. “We know lead,” she said. “Lead is a potent, known, irreversible neurotoxin.”
Children in roughly 4 million American homes are being exposed to some form of lead today, according to CDC estimates. The agency also estimates that at least half a million kids under five have “elevated” levels of lead in their blood.
“Since the time of the Roman Empire, when people lined their aqueducts with lead pipes, we have known [lead] causes problems,” said Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, a pediatrician and president of the Mott Children’s Health Center in Flint, and a member of the Governor’s task force investigating Flint’s lead-contamination crisis.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of lead, which can include delayed intellectual development, irritability, learning problems, and increased aggression, Reynolds said.
“You’ll have more kids with lower IQ and more children who will have learning problems and require services,” Reynolds said. “Start multiplying these things by thousands, and imagine what a school district has to deal with.”
“Even at levels below what we consider ‘elevated’…it drops your IQ about four points,” Hanna-Attisha said.
And in Flint?
“Imagine what we have done to our entire population,” she said. “We have shifted the IQ curve down. We’ve lost potentially these high achievers, and more children now may need special education and remedial services.”
Beyond Flint, the main source of lead exposure today comes from old lead-based paint in homes and buildings. Even though leaded paint was banned in the late 1970’s, many older structures still contain it. Exposure occurs as that paint peels, chips, or crumbles into dust. Young children, who spend time on all fours and put all sorts of things their mouths, are particularly vulnerable. (A child’s pediatrician can test their blood-lead levels, but a low reading doesn’t necessarily mean there hasn’t been a prior exposure.)
One of the best general prevention strategies, health officials say, is to keep children and pregnant-women away from old paint. The CDC has this helpful list of ways to avoid exposure to lead-based paint.
Children should not be exposed to peeling or crumbling paint, should not be in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation and should not play in bare soil.
The doctors in Flint have gathered some of their own hard-earned wisdom.
When you move into a house, flush the water lines in case lead and other things are accumulating there, Reynolds said. And when you return home from vacation, flush your cold water for about five minutes.
If you’re concerned about lead in your water (which almost always comes from older lead water pipes, as opposed to the actual water supply itself), you can have your water tested. Many municipalities provide free lead-testing kits to residents, or they can be purchased individually at some hardware stores or online.
And if lead is present, there are steps you can take.
The costliest approach is to remove the lead pipes from your own home. If they’re present, they’re usually the “service line” that connects your home to your local water main, and replacing that can easily run into the thousands of dollars. (Some municipalities offer a stipend to homeowners to complete this work.)
Buying bottled water is an option, but if that’s too costly, you can buy a standalone filter, a filter that attaches to your faucets, or install a entire-home filter (which filters all the water entering your house). It’s important to check whether your filtration system is specifically certified for lead-filtration, because many store-bought filters do not filter out lead.
Reynolds also says that when it comes to drinking or cooking with tap water that might contain lead, start with cold water. Warmer water can carry more dissolved lead.
If you believe you’ve already been exposed to lead, Hanna-Attisha says there are things you can do to lessen the impact of that exposure.
Among them, education. Given that lead can reduce a child’s intellectual capacity, strengthening a child’s early learning can have positive effects. That means emphasizing things like early literacy programs, and reading and speaking to young kids even more than usual.
“Nutrition is also a great mitigator,” she adds. “Diets high in iron, calcium, vitamin C help promote the excretion of lead.”
Hanna-Attisha hopes the lead-crisis in Flint will prompt more attention to needed infrastructure repairs in other cities along with a greater focus on the kids who are likely to be dealing with the downstream effect of lead poisoning for decades to come.
“As a pediatrician, my job is to take care of that kid in front of me,” Hanna-Attisha said. “My job is to make sure that they have the brightest future ahead of them. And we can sit back and in 10, 15, 20 years, we can see the consequences of lead poisoning — we can see all these kids in special ed, we can see the problems in our mental health system, we can see the problems in our criminal justice system. Or we can do something now.”
To learn more, click on the following links:
EPA’s “Lead Free Kids” website has information on prevention, treatment and finding contractors.
EPA has dietary advice, including recipes, to help reduce lead in people who have already been exposed.
The California Department of Public Health’s “Frequently Asked Questions About Lead Poisoning.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fact Sheet on how to safely renovate when you’ve got lead paint.