Flint — – For more than two months, they’ve been coming through the doors of Flint-area doctors’ offices looking for some kind of reassurance — something to tell them their kids are OK.
The truth, however, is that no one will know for sure for some time, possibly years from now, what damage has been done by the city’s lingering water crisis.
Pediatricians in the Flint area have seen increasing numbers of parents bringing their young children in for blood work since August, when news surfaced of elevated lead levels in area kids. Those chilling statistics have been linked to the city’s use of the Flint River as a water source between April 2014 and last month.
At the Children’s Office on South Ballenger Highway, parents have been bringing children in for finger-prick blood tests they hope will show lead levels below the acceptable 5 micrograms per deciliter level.
“If you have a concern, I tell them, then come in and have your child tested,” said Dr. Paul Chrenka, a pediatrician at the office. “They just want to know what the lead levels are in their kids and see if they’re at risk.”
Jennifer Marshall, a 32-year-old Flint mother and step-mother, said it’s hard to know what to do right now, since there doesn’t seem to be clear information coming out. Even though her youngest is 10, she has an appointment for the children to get tested in the coming weeks.
“I don’t know too much about what’s going on,” she said. “My kids shower in the water but we don’t drink it... I go and get them tested for all different kinds of things. But oh this water is just terrible, so they have to get tested for this.”
On Friday, four families in Flint filed a federal lawsuit against state and city officials, saying the city’s use of the Flint River for drinking water left their children with a wide array of maladies. They are seeking class-action status.
Hurley Medical Center’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha uncovered the lead problem in August and continues to warn residents the water is still likely not safe, despite Flint reconnecting to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. She and other pediatricians have been faced with the flood of concerns from parents, many of whom are looking for signs their children might have been damaged.
Lead poisoning doesn’t often provide such clear indications. It may leave behind visible traces a keen eye can pick up on an X-ray, but acute signs are rare. Damage is done, but its tracks are covered fairly well.
“Someone with lead poisoning is often asymptomatic,” Hanna-Attisha said. “A kid with lead poisoning does not come in with a headache or a bellyache. They come in with nothing.”
In addition, lead leaves the blood fairly quickly with its half-life of 20 to 30 days. That means a person getting tested today, after switching to bottled water after Hanna-Attisha’s findings came out in August, would show little in the way of contamination through a blood test.
At Chrenka’s office, only one test registered above the 5 micrograms in the past two months — an encouraging sign. But it may be partly due to the fact his office serves many county residents who are outside the Flint water system.
Just a few miles away, at Prime Pediatrics and Adolescent on Linden Road, Dr. Nuzhat Ali has been seeing something different. Since the switch to Flint River water in 2014, her office has often seen test results that are alarming.
“Most of the time (before the switch) we saw lead levels register less than one,” she said. “Then we started seeing an alarming rise in those numbers — sevens and eights and even 12 or 14 in some areas.”
Flint’s poorest neighborhoods generally are considered the most at-risk from lead, due to an older housing stock that likely includes lead connection lines and plumbing fixtures. Many of those residents don’t know the proper questions to ask their doctors once they’re in the office, Ali said.
So she asks them questions: about their worries, concerns as well as their water usage. She also tells them the warning signs, moving ahead.
“We’re looking for delayed development, signs they’re becoming anemic or are regularly fatigued,” Ali said. “Those are the things I want (parents) to watch out for.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe lead as a contaminant that can “affect nearly every system in the body,” causing “behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children” and “decreased intelligence.”
Newborns and infants need to be tested and then tested again, with local health officials cataloging the results to track impacts as the children grow. At Hurley, doctors are creating an electronic database of Flint’s children, including those not yet born, that will updated regularly.
It’s what Hanna-Attisha calls Flint’s attempt at secondary prevention.
“The earlier a (development issue) is picked up in a child, the earlier we can refer them to intervention services,” she said. But earlier detection in the affected population may require resources Flint does not have. Currently, Hanna-Attisha said, there aren’t enough spots available in programs like Head Start. It’s an uncertain future for a city that has had its share of uncertainty for more than 18 months now.
“Our community is absolutely traumatized right now,” she said. “They all think their kids are going to have these long-term consequences. We need to give them hope.”